Starring: Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini
Director: John Trengove
Just when you think there cannot possibly be any more unique variations on the gay coming-of-age story, a film like The Wound comes along. Taking the universal themes of sexual awakening and self-acceptance, these are cast against a backdrop rarely seen on film, let alone considered in terms of LGBT life.
Xolani (Toure) is a part of the Xhosa community in rural South Africa. Each year, a cohort of male teenagers participate in the Ukwaluka period, which is a rite of passage during which their elders initiate them into manhood as they recover from their group circumcision. Xolani is a caregiver, who looks after the initiates each year, but his motives for returning annually are less about his respect for tradition and more for the love of his childhood friend Vija (Mantsai), who participates in the ritual too. Though the two have been engaged in a sexual relationship for some time, Vija does not share the same feelings as his friend. This year, Kwanda (Ncoyini) has been left in Xolani’s charge, a sophisticated young man from the city who has been sent back to the community to make him “less soft” by his father. Kwanda alienates everyone around him with his questions and, before long, begins to understand the nature of his caregiver’s relationship with his friend.
Unlike most LGBT dramas about sexual awakening, there is a lingering sense of danger in The Wound that feels palpably real. Being gay is the biggest taboo there is for the Xhosa community, so the danger comes not just from the all-male sect around them, but also from within themselves, trying to conceal their sexuality at all costs. Kwanda, for all his intelligence, is completely oblivious as to why a gay person might want to keep their identity concealed, or the lengths to which someone might go to do this. Despite the film’s very distinctive setting, the story here has a universality that completely overcomes any squeamishness that might appear with the more extreme elements of the film’s plot. While the mass circumcision at the film’s opening will probably deliver quite a powerful shock to many viewers, it does becomes easy to overcome the cultural disparities later because eventually the film does more to show the parallels between cultures than it does to highlight the differences.
The film’s closest comparison is probably to Eyes Wide Open, which was similar in its depiction of homosexuality within a community amongst whom it is both dangerous and unthinkable to be gay. While orthodox Jews in Israel are a long way from the tribal rituals of the Xhosa, what they both have in common is just how extremely alien both communities feel to a cinema-goer in the UK. But due to the remarkable realism depicted in both these films, we are given amazing insight into life in both of these communities. But where most observational films focus more on the realism than storytelling, The Wound delivers brilliantly on the tension it creates, building to a climax that I certainly didn’t see coming.
The film toes the line between reverence and an examination of the tribal rituals that it depicts. There is no suggestion that the director believes the Xhosa’s rituals are barbaric, even if they do seem so at times, but instead there is just the seed of doubt planted through Kwanda of their relevance in the modern world. Although the young man goes along with the instructions of his caregivers, his questions land uncomfortably with elders who do not have the answers. To question these full-stop is quite a bold statement for a filmmaker, but to do this from a LGBT standpoint is bordering on audacious.
The Wound is a character piece that poses pertinent questions about masculinity. It poses these questions without providing neatly packaged answers, but instead adeptly reflects the problems societies all around the world are facing with outdated ideas of what being “a man” actually means.
IN CINEMAS 27TH APRIL 2018.
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