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Foreign Film Friday: The Wound (Inxeba) review - a masterful exploration of masculinity

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South Africa’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Oscar that just missed the cut, The Wound is an incredibly raw and gripping social drama set amongst the South African Xhosa tribe’s coming of age ritual, Ukwaluka.

Read our interview with co-writer and director John Trengove and star Nakhane Touré here.

Amongst the young initiates taken to the mountains for ritual circumcision and the subsequent healing process is urban youth Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), sent by his father from Johannesberg to reconnect with his culture. Kwanda’s position as a relative outsider to the process provides the audience’s initial route in to the drama, but it is Xolani (Nakhane Touré), young man who acts as his mentor through the process, who is the real heart of the film.

Heady visuals and sensual camera work reveal a taboo relationship between the sensitive Xolani and another more traditionally masculine mentor, Vija, played phenomenally by the award winning stage actor Bongile Mantsai. 

The entire film is a fascinating exploration of the many facets of masculinity, and how they interplay with culture and sexuality, love and violence. Set in this all-male environment, totally isolated from society, from adolescents through to tribal elders, the tribalism that forms in this bubble mirrors the constraints of gender roles outside it. Insiders reject outsiders, those who refuse to conform are isolated, pushing some to hide their non-conforming behaviour in order not to disturb the fragile eco-system, and others to defiantly refuse to do so.

Touré delivers a truly heart-rending performance throughout the film, balancing Xolani’s passion for his cultural responsibilities with his personal desires in such a delicate and nuanced manner. The interplay of sex and violence, desperation and softness, is utterly mesmerising.

As we delve into the secret relationship between the two men, it becomes increasingly clear that whatever differences in opinion they may have, they are ultimately on the same page, and it is Kwanda, the outsider, who presents a threat to them when his own queer identity leads to him discovering the relationship. As the initial audience surrogate, his invasive presence dictates our own discomfort at having disrupted the lives of the characters with our own outsider’s gaze.

The drama and conflict unfolds, refreshingly, not due to Xolani trying to balance his cultural and sexual identities — that is something he has been balancing for a long time — but rather due to Kwanda upsetting this balance with his outsider’s perspective. The whole film encourages audiences to reevaluate their own perspectives, and forces us to realise that trying to “fix” a “problem” from the outside of a community is both incredibly disrespectful and damaging to those within. It’s a condemnation of the colonial gaze, as well as a celebration of self-determination.

The story is as complex as its characters, and there is no simple answer to the conflict, and in this way it grants these complex issues the respect they deserve. White South African director John Trengove co-wrote the script alongside Xhosa author Thando Mgqolozana, whose debut novel, “A Man Who is Not a Man,” explores the Ukwaluka ritual. Lead actor Touré is an openly gay Xhosa music artist. The elders in the film are real, not actors. The collaboration on this project with genuine people whose experiences the film reflects lends it vital authenticity.

"The Wound" itself, Inxeba in Xhosa, and its healing process is a multifaceted metaphor for masculinity itself, and both the pain and respect it can bring. The crowning glory of this film is the empathy it undoubtedly evokes in every single audience member, no matter how similar of different their background and experiences may be. A singularly powerful film that deserves to be talked about for a long time to come.

The Wound is in select UK cinemas and available on demand now, distributed by Peccadillo Pictures.

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