Rites of Passage:
John Trengove’s The Wound
When Elias Ribeiro, a Brazilian-born, Cape Town-based producer, came out at 22, his life transformed and his ability to function at all levels became more authentic. “I could breathe once I came out. I think it was the first time [that] I took a full breath of air to my full lung capacity,” Ribeiro says. “Once I discovered that, I never wanted to hold my breath again.”
Reacting against the anti-gay rhetoric across the African continent and conservative attitudes towards gays and lesbians in South Africa, Ribeiro, together with two other gay South African filmmakers, the director John Trengove and co-producer Batana Vundla, wanted to depict some of the prejudice that is prevalent in the country. Their film The Wound explores masculinity in contemporary South Africa through the story of three men navigating their sexuality and same-sex relationships in a patriarchal rural village. This taboo subject is delicately explored through the potent ritual of initiation in the Xhosa culture—a rite of passage where boys transition to men.
The film begins when Xolani, a sensitive factory worker from Queenstown, returns to his rural village to take care of initiates, as he does every initiation season. Here he also reconnects with Vija, another caregiver—a dominant, married father and Xolani’s secret lover. Xolani is tasked with taking care of Kwanda, an irreverent young gay man from the city, who discovers the relationship between Xolani and Vija and threatens to expose it. In a reversal of roles between initiate and caregiver, the young Kwanda challenges the older Xolani to confront who he is and the truth of his seemingly asymmetrical relationship with Vija. But despite Xolani’s yearning for more time with Vija, he does not wish to upset the status quo.
The landscape for LGBTIs in South Africa is deceptive—progressive constitutional rights stand in stark contrast to social attitudes. Gays and lesbians still face prejudice and persecution—overtly, in the form of violent hate crimes, and more subtly, behind the curtains of tradition, cultural practices, and religious beliefs. A report released by the Human Science Research Council (HSRC) and the Other Foundation in 2016 shows that a staggering 72% of South Africans believe that same-sex sexual activity is morally wrong. Overlaying this, in many traditional communities such as the Xhosa, there are unambiguous expectations of what it means to be a man, which is by and large heteronormative: build a household, get married and reproduce, take care of the family, be a responsible member of the community, own property. This is what awaits young Xhosa men in their seminal rite of passage to manhood in their late teenage years. But torn between these deep conflicts of identity and social expectations, young men in same-sex relationships from traditional communities still find a way to breathe.
The Wound deals directly with the sexuality of its protagonists, portraying their same-sex interactions and relationships with complexity and candor. For the filmmakers, crafting a fictional screenplay with these forbidden ideas at the heart of the story required tremendous research and input. Not only did they want to accurately portray the cultural elements of tribal initiation, they also sought to ensure that the story drew from real-life experiences of young gay men who were initiated in the rural areas.
To better understand the Xhosa culture, they enlisted the help of two experts. Thando Mgqolozana—author of a pioneering 2009 fiction book, A Man Who is Not a Man, in which he tells the story of a young man's initiation experience —joined the project in its early stages as cultural consultant and co-script writer (with Trengove and Malusi Bengu). Mgqolozana suffered huge backlash for delving into matters that are not spoken about publicly. Mthetho Tshemese—a clinical psychologist with vast experience on the subject, who describes, in an interview, his own initiation as one of the most powerful transitions for him personally—joined later at the production stage. The two men provided guidance on initiation, rituals, and cultural practices. Trengove and Vundla also spent six months interviewing young, gay Xhosa men, who were initiated in the rural areas.
In the Xhosa culture, successful initiation is the only way for a boy to become a man. Ulwaluko (initiation) is an important transition for a young boy to achieve respect and acceptance in society. “If you are a boy, there is a phrase—inkwenkwe yinja—meaning “a boy is a dog.” You have no value, no status as a human being until [you have gone through initiation],” Tshemese says. Designed to be transformative, the process involves many rituals: spiritual aspects such as connecting with ancestors, teaching of life skills, preparation for a life as a responsible, respectful adult, and circumcision. This occurs over the course of a month, during which time the initiate remains secluded in the green hills of rural Eastern Cape, in the company of fellow abakwetha (initiates) and under the care of ikhankatha (traditional caregivers). It is a physical, spiritual, and psychological rebirth—and with it comes the unambiguous expectations of being a man, which can vary depending on area and family. The bar is set, and the consequence for not fulfilling all the rituals and expectations can be harsh: young men are ostracized, rejected by girls, and sometimes disowned by their families.
The Wound spans the initiation ritual timeline and provides a glimpse into how some men, who do not conform to expectations, navigate this space. The outspoken Kwanda questions some of the rituals, irking the elders but still continues with the process. Taunted by his fellow initiates—as much for being an aloof city boy as for being gay—Kwanda is unflustered, comfortable with his sexual identity. Xolani, too, endures jibes about taking a wife; even though he and Vija have found a comfortable space in which to express their feelings for each other, his torment is palpable.
For openly gay men, the initiation process can be traumatic. Many cannot fulfill all the rituals and expectations and can be viewed as less masculine. The young men interviewed by the filmmakers during their research were acutely aware of how different they felt and how distant they were from the community’s expectations of masculinity. For some, there were other conflicts. Nakhane Touré, who portrays Xolani, had struggled to reconcile his sexuality with his strong religious beliefs throughout his teenage years. He reluctantly went for initiation when he was twenty, at which time he was still a devout Christian. Touré’s cousins left the hills with pride; he was bitter.
Reflecting on his initiation now, however, Touré appreciates its beauty and value. He draws parallels between the vulnerability he felt as an initiate with how he feels as an actor. Touré’s portrayal of Xolani is visceral yet restrained; the sub-text bare in his eyes and gait. For him, The Wound is about “people who are vulnerable but pretend not to be, every second of the day.”
Other openly gay men find the process less painful. While they are not embraced, gay men who undergo initiation and circumcision in the mountains are usually somewhat respected, and even placed higher up the “male hierarchy” than a heterosexual man who has undergone medical circumcision or seeks medical attention during the process. A premium is attached to the perceived riskier circumcision process in the mountains.
Medical attention is often required when something goes wrong, usually in the aftercare process and many young men suffer injuries, amputations, and even death. Mgqolozana's protagonist was one of those men whose circumcision did not go according to plan. Neglected in the aftercare process, he had to seek medical treatment. He endured not only physical injury but also indignity and trauma. “It has made me more human, not less,” he says in his book. “Who I have become is exactly who I am meant to be.”
As explored in The Wound, the struggles of young gay men in these communities can be painful, and choices come with personal sacrifice. Some accept the cultural expectations and suppress their feelings; others accept the expectations but have relationships hidden from the community, where it may be known but seldom openly acknowledged. For many, the only way is to get out and start afresh. But escape is a privilege that does not favor the poor, the less educated, the voiceless—their mobility is restricted. “It is quite a traumatic thing when people cannot be who they are,” Tshemese says. “The reality is that you need to be you, wherever you are.”
It is not uncommon for black gay men in the country to lead parallel lives—like Vija in the film—with one foot in the traditional realm where a gay identity is hidden, and the other in an environment where it is not, or permits living a gay life while being married. “The duality exists on a far bigger scale than we care to acknowledge, including in terms of people’s sexuality,” Mgqolozana says. He dispels the perceived notion of greater freedom in the cities. “There is a stereotype that rural is more backwards. There is no difference between urban and rural attitudes.” Vundla and Touré agree. City dwellers still have a strong umbilical cord to traditional culture and rural villages, and are often the biggest champions of protecting tradition, but there is a move to tolerate differences in the rural areas. “There is an unspoken freedom in the rural areas,” Touré says. Invisible spaces exist where young gay men can breathe—as shown in the film, wherein the complex relationship between Xolani and Vija, two friends with separate lives, has quietly endured in a traditional rural setting. The film’s cinematography emphasizes this by shooting the actors in close-up with a hand-held camera, resisting the pull of the beautiful South African landscapes. The imagery is rough and raw, mimicking the emotional tones in the story. Yet a tenderness and vulnerability linger.
Still, buoyed by sentiments expressed by leaders across the African continent, homophobic attitudes prevail. But Trengove questions how deep-seated these sentiments are and believes that a rapid transformation in attitudes is possible once this climate thaws. Vundla adds that there is now a stronger sense of self-acceptance and identity in the gay community, resulting in a stronger voice in public life. More conversations about the LGBTI community are taking place and a greater awareness is growing.
But the country still has a way to go. The film depicts same-sex relationships in a frank, authentic, and visceral way, not commonly seen in the local mainstream TV and film media. The filmmakers hope that The Wound allows people a means to see some social issues with distance, be more introspective, and explore difficult subjects that they are not always able or willing to deal with directly. As Touré says, “To make something that was invisible, visible.”
CINDY GOVENDER is a freelance writer.