South Africa Oscar entry 'The Wound' tests taboos about homosexuality

Lauded abroad and reviled at home, a new film mixes ancient tribal custom with gay romance, leading to death threats for its makers and raising questions about "masculinity" in post-apartheid South Africa


A controversial new South African film that sets a gay love story against the backdrop of an ancient tribal initiation rite is making waves at home and abroad and has been longlisted for best foreign language film at the Academy Awards.
"Inxeba," which translates as "The Wound," focuses on the Xhosa tribe's coming of age ceremony for young men, during which teens travel into the bush in groups to undergo "ulwaluko," or circumcision without anaesthetic.
Ultimately "The Wound" is about identity struggle and masculinity in a traditional society. The film, while an accurate depiction of Xhosa rites, tells the fictional tale of Xolani, a factory worker who goes to mentor the younger initiates, one of whom comes to the realization that he is gay.
The film has received high praise among cinephiles, premiering at Berlin and Sundance and winning awards at the Palm Springs and Valencia festivals. But it has divided opinion in South Africa, where, while homosexuality is legal, it is still not widely accepted.
The film's openly gay lead Nakhane, a well-known local musician who goes by only one name, won best actor at the Palm Springs film festival. But at home he has received death threats, some groups have called for a ban, and even the Xhosa king has slammed the film as "insulting."
For the Xhosa, the two-week initiation period is steeped in mystique, with the boys painted white and draped in blankets as they fast and live in straw huts in the wild mountains of the eastern Cape. It is also believed to be a boy's transition to manhood.
The film's co-writer Malusi Bengu, who is Xhosa, told dpa that the local reaction to the movie did not surprise him because it was taboo on so many levels.
"Firstly I've been to initiation, I understand the sacredness and secretness. Then you want to bring in a gay element and a white director," Malusi says laughing. "The country's going to eat you alive."
However, he says, he didn't think the reaction would be as hostile as it has been.
"Because it's a macho society ... this is 'un-African', this is the white settler who's brought this 'homosexual business'," he explains, referring to the idea espoused by some that homosexuality is part of European culture, and unheard of in Africa.
Proponents of that view include Zimbabwe's ex-president Robert Mugabe, who once called gays "worse than pigs and dogs."
John Trengove, the film's white South African director, who is gay, has said: "I know there is a lot that is not my place to talk about ... because I am not Xhosa."
"I was stepping into a very complicated cultural space ... I knew that I needed to find collaborators," he adds. "It's high time a film from Africa put queer images on the screen."
While many in other parts of Africa are fighting to ban female genital mutilation, teen male circumcision in South Africa is widely unquestioned as an important step towards adulthood, despite the fact that at least a few young men die every year.
The deaths occur either due to botched circumcisions, accidental amputations, or infection and dehydration, with at least 27 dying in 2017, according to local media reports. Experts have said that while skilled elders performed the cut - with a knife - in the past, they are now often done by quack doctors for money.
However safe circumcision - in a clinic with anaesthetic and medical supervision - has actually been encouraged by the government as an extra protection against HIV, infection rates of which are high in South Africa.
Gcobani Qambela, a doctoral student in anthropology at Rhodes University studying Xhosa masculinities, told dpa that banning the traditional initiation would be misplaced, and advocates for a combined approach.
"I am aware traditional authorities have been working with the government and biomedical practitioners to find solutions that are culturally sensitive, but yet respond to the need to prevent the needless death of young boys and men," he said.
South Africa's most famous Xhosa, anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela, proudly described his initiation ceremony as transformative in his memoir "Long Walk to Freedom."
However, some have noted that for gay Xhosa men it can be a trying time, especially because "the ritual carries with it the implicit assumption that gay initiates have decided to 'convert' to heterosexuality," according to a 2016 research paper from South Africa's University of Fort Hare.
They also face alienation from their peers if they don't "conform to cultural expectations of masculinity," the paper entitled "Gay Xhosa men's experiences of ulwaluko" reads.
The film was shot outside Johannesburg, but is set in the Eastern Cape, and many of the actors were ordinary people from a nearby Xhosa community.
"The Wound" is among nine movies longlisted for best foreign film at the Oscars - the shortlist will be announced on Tuesday.
Lead actor Nakhane, who has been widely praised internationally as a newcomer to watch, admits making the film - his debut - was challenging.
"I was really scared of opening myself up like that to complete strangers," the 29-year-old says in a video on the film's official site. "This conversation about masculinity and a homoerotic relationship in a space that's quite hyper-masculine."
Nakhane says despite the fear, he drew on his own experiences when portraying his character in the film and said he hopes watching it will help other young, gay men.
"I think people who do see it, maybe they'll feel less alone," he adds.

Monday, January 22nd 2018
By Kate Bartlett,

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