Premiering at Sundance, John Trengove’s directorial debut, The Wound (Inxeba), is a brutal yet beautiful study in identity: Kwanda, a young gay South African, goes out into the wilderness to undergo Ulwaluko, a painful circumcision ritual and his rite of passage into the Xhosa tribe. But his desire to claim his manhood comes in conflict with the reality of his sexuality.
The film, which opened in the U.S. last week, has received wide critical acclaim—and comparisons to Moonlight. Variety called it “sensitively nuanced” and “rich in… small, observational details” (It’s also earned a respectable 86% on Rotten Tomatoes.)
In South Africa, though, The Wound has faced protests from the Xhosa community, which claims it reveals too much about Ulwaluko.
“The movie made everything public—even the very sensitive and secret things,” Xhosa king Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu told The Times. “It is insulting to the tradition because it stripped the tradition of its secrecy and sacredness. This will provoke the wrath of ancestors. Attacking and insulting this custom is an attack to our ancestors.”
Sigcawu and members of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa, or Contralesa, are calling for The Wound to be banned and have lodged complaints with the country’s Film and Publication Board. King Sigcawu wants to talk to em>The Wound’s producers “amicably” before approaching the courts.
“His subjects are complaining. He is the custodian of custom and what is being dealt [with] in the film is custom,” his attorney, Matthew Mpahlwa told News24. “There’s a lot of panic among the amaXhosa people who have undertaken the rituals, some of the men mostly, and they called on the kingdom of the amaXhosa to intervene.”
Sigcawu has not, however, seen The Wound yet. “He’s seen [the] trailers and people are just shocked,” said Mpahlwa. “There is an extent [to] which freedom of expression can go.”
South Africans have also blasted The Wound on twitter.
— Ukhonaye (@IamMountain_) August 2, 2017
— wayne (@NtlwaneN) August 8, 2017
Who ever made that inxeba movie is gonna feel the wrath of the Xhosa nation. The secrecy and mastery around initiation are important
— Anele Mbethe (@Chisana1990) August 20, 2017
But Trengove says he omitted much of the circumcision rite, and insists most people complaining about The Wound haven’t even seen it, either. “The film has already come under a lot of fire for simply existing.”
In the film, Kwanda is entrusted to Xolani, who serves as his guide and caregiver through the initiation. But Kwanda soon realizes Xolani’s relationship with another caregiver, Vija, is more than fraternal.
Nakhane Touré, the openly gay performer who plays Xolani, remembers when The Wound’s trailer first dropped.
“Hundreds of people jumped on my timeline, furious that the Xhosa passage to manhood was being exposed to the world,” he told City Press. “There was quite a lot of homophobia, but mostly it was around ’what happens at the mountain stays at the mountain.'”
Touré, who made his acting debut with the film, understands the concern. But he balks at comments that he sold out his culture.
“There’s always a sort of exclusion of people like me in this culture,” he says. “It’s my culture, too. Do I not have a say? And when we’re talking about culture, which era? 1200s? 1600s? Because things change all the time—women giving birth is no longer a secret rite of passage. Why is this the only thing that is so protected in our culture?”
He believes it’s because the ritual has to do with masculinity and the film addresses homosexuality. “As a queer person, I am [seen as] a virus anyway in this culture. Unless I’m entertaining you and I’m funny.”
Contralesa, one of the groups calling for a ban, has a history of homophobia: It’s called for LGBT rights to be stricken from the South African Constitution.
Trengove is and gay—and white. The Wound was inspired by Thando Mgqolozana’s novel A Man Who is Not a Man—and Trengove wrote the script with Mgqolozana and another Xhosa writer, Malusi Bengu. But in many people’s eyes it’s still an outsider sharing secrets that aren’t his to share. (Nelson Mandela detailed the ritual in Long Walk to Freedom and faced little criticism.)
Will The Wound make the Xhosa look backwards or inspire legislation to ban Ulwaluko? Ultimately, Touré believes, The Wound doesn’t make a moral judgment about the initiation.
“I think some foreign press felt that we were critiquing the culture, [but] the film’s not a critique at all,” he says. “Never have I been more Xhosa in my spirituality than after this film. Now I [pray] every day to my ancestors.”