by Toby Woollaston
Thando Mgqolozana’s controversial novel, ‘A Man Who Is Not a Man’ has already ruffled plenty of feathers within South Africa’s Xhosa community. His work explored the contentious issue of traditional circumcision and the dubious conditions with which the rite is undertaken. Now, South African writer/director, John Trengove, has made the bold (or foolhardy, depending on your opinion) move to stir the pot further. His latest film, The Wound, is a reworking of Mgqolozana’s book (Mgqolozana also co-wrote the screenplay) and examines homosexuality against the traditional backdrop of the Xhosa ritual.
I’m sure some may take umbrage at Trengove, a white South African director, telling a Xhosa story. Certainly, my lack of knowledge of Xhosa culture and customs means this reviewer, a white New Zealander, must take this film at face value alone.
The Wound is a provocative tale that nervously sits at the intersection where tradition and sexuality collide. Set in the remote hills of the South African outback, The Wound operates almost entirely within the confines of a Xhosa initiation camp. Adolescent males are brought before the elders and through a rather brutal rite-of-passage are ceremonially circumcised. There, the “initiates” stay for weeks engaging only with their caretaker until the healing process, and their journey into manhood is complete.
The film centres primarily on Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a caretaker and his initiate, Kwanda (Niza Jay). Charged with the task of “ushering” Kwanda from boyhood to manhood, Xolani also harbours an ulterior motive for his annual pilgrimage to the remote camp. Xolani sees the job as an opportunity to intimately reconnect with another caretaker, Vija (Bongile Mantsai). The two men have been doing this for years, using ritual as cover for their trysts. However, when Kwanda suspects of the affair, his confusion around what “manhood” means, and his disillusionment with the Xhosa establishment, swiftly becomes a quiet rebellion against what he believes to be a hollow and pointless ritual.
The Wound makes for uneasy viewing and soon becomes a smouldering powder keg that threatens to explode into violence. Tender moments are laced with hostility and the three contrasting personalities are perpetually wrought with tension.
Shot almost entirely with a hand-held camera and with no musical score, the film bristles with a social realist sensibility. Through all its dust and grime The Wound is a beautiful film to watch. Cinematographer Paul Ozgur balances a heady mix of environment, framing and lighting to capture a rural South Africa that feels genuine and earthy. The film’s visual tendencies and its economy of dialogue give way to superb physical performances from its cast, in particular, Nakhane Touré who shows an acting maturity beyond his experience.
Obvious comparisons will be made to God’s Own Country, and like Francis Lee’s brutally honest film, The Wound is unsentimental and unflinching in its depiction of gay love and remains an affecting depiction of what it means to be a gay man within a traditionally heterosexual community.