Wednesday, May 31st, 2023

South African horror show

The Wound

Directed by John Trengove

Written by Malusi Bengu, Thando Mgqolozana, John Trengove

Premiered January 22, 2017 at Sundance Film Festival
Drama (Africa)
88 min.


Review by Stephen O. Murray

February 21, 2018.

White South African filmmaker John Trengove’s feature–film debut, The Wound (Inxeba, 2017) and its prequel, The Goat, (2014, included on the DVD release of The Wound) are very disturbing films about ukwaluka, the Xhosa male initiation rite that includes genital mutilation (circumcision with a razor blade that is not cleansed between lops) and continues with isolation for eight days during which the initiate (abakwetha) is not supposed to sleep or drink anything. Generally, the initiate has a caregiver (ikhankatha) to change the dressing and instruct him on what it means to be a Xhosa man. As text before The Goat reports and The Wound shows, putting away childish things and becoming a man includes ceasing homosexual activity.

Plot spoiler alert

There are indications from the father of Kwanda [Niza Jay Ncoyini], a “soft” boy from Johannesburg, has been having homosexual sex, and it is eventually clear that he is more accepting of his homosexual orientation than his caregiver, Xolani [Nakhane Touré, a musician who is openly gay] or his caregiver’s childhood buddy, Vija [Bongile Mantsai], now a man with a wife and three children who remains willing to have rough sex with Xolani. (There are also some tender moments, as in the still below.)

The movie opens with Xolani working in the warehouse of a white man, then being talked to by Kwanda’s father. Kwanda’s mother wanted Kwanda to be circumcised in a hospital with sterile instruments (and a modicum of compassion for the pain inflicted). I’m not completely sure that it was Kwanda who decided to go back to “the bush” (mountain in the eastern Cape) for traditional ukwaluka. This is certainly what his father wanted for his son, clearly giving no thought to the likelihood that the more affluent city boy was going to be a focus of resentment from his agemates who had lived their lives in the Xhosa homeland. I don’t think the father would have been deterred by foreseeing that his son would be bullied. Indeed, this was part of his father’s plan to toughen up the boy who lived with his mother in Johannesburg.

Kwanda seem to have more insight into his caregiver than Xolani himself does, and he tells Xolani that Vija will always use Xolani for sex and never leave his wife and children to live with Xolani. The viewer of the movie, who has seen Xolani with Vija, knows this, but Kwanda mostly intuits it without seeing The Vija-Xolani rough sex.

Xolani lives for the annual (or, I think, biennial) reunions with Vija. It is no wonder that he looks depressed as early as the opening scene of working in the warehouse.

Xolani tries to protect his initiate, not least by warning Kwanda to stay away from Vija. (Xolani’s motives for this are mixed, though there is no explicit statement of his fear that Vija might savor the boy more than he does the submissive Xolani.)

Kolani and Kwanda

The continuation of the ukwaluka rite is controversial in South Africa. What happens in the initiate camp is supposed to remain there, and the filmmakers (including writers Thando Mgolozana and Maluis Bengu) largely avoid showing what is supposed to be secret knowledge. That there is not even a perfunctory wipe of the razor bleed between cutting off the foreskin of one boy and that of the next is not secret. None of the boys herein dies of infection, though the viewer cannot know if HIV was transmitted during this iteration. Even without showing any of the excisions, I found the scene of the assembly line of cutting hard to watch.

And then there is the final horror. To me this revives (in a new setting) the old requirement that “The fag must die” of 1950s and 60s American and British films (prototypically, Don Murray’s character in Advise and Consent). The closeted pair (Xolani and Vija) survive. It seemed that Kwanda had, too, but, at the last moment, he becomes a fatal victim of the closetry he refuses to accept.

End plot spoiler alert

In a bonus feature interview, Trengrove says he did not want to show the scenic beauty (he describes that as a “National Geographic look” totally alien to the Xhosa characters). There are still looks at waterfalls, the locales of crucial scenes.

I can see (but do not buy) an argument that the movie shows homophobia rather than perpetuating it. (Contrast Moonlight which portrays rather than participates in homophobia.) The Wound does not endorse the lethal homophobia it displays, and includes explicit denunciation of it by Kwanda.

I am not sure how old Xolani and Vija are supposed to be, but they are supposed to be agemates, and the actor portraying Vija looks older to me than the one playing Xolani.

The movie won awards (mostly for first feature) around the world and was South Africa’s submission for consideration of the best foreign-language film Academy Award (it did not make the short list of five nominees).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.