The film that’s really getting the 38th annual Durban International Film Festival talking is the African premiere of a frank and beautiful gay Xhosa initiation love story called Inxeba (The Wound), which explores masculinity and tradition – but is made by a white director.
Here’s what five pan-African reviewers at the festival, on the Talents Press programme, thought of the film after watching it together
A brave and graceful slice of life
South Africa’s Inxeba takes a stark, unflinching look at black African masculinity by taking a taboo subject in our societies – same-sex love – and situating it in an even more hushed setting, Xhosa initiation from boyhood to manhood.
It could all go very wrong, but Inxeba is very tastefully done, respectful towards the culture it depicts but revealing enough to draw viewers into a previously forbidden world with the utmost sensitivity. Finely acted and brilliantly directed by John Trengove with easy, natural dialogue, Inxeba builds its world with rough and intimate camera angles, lovely nature shots and seemingly effortless scenes.
Until the over-the-top ending, there was barely a false note in the film and a particular breathtaking scene involving the two leads and a waterfall deserves a spot on the Most Beautiful Love Scenes Ever Put to Film list.
Inxeba is likely to draw comparisons with the 2005 Hollywood film Brokeback Mountain but such comparisons, while easy to make, would be doing Trengove’s film a grave disservice. The power, grace and singularity of the story, coupled with the skilled execution, demands that Inxeba be approached on its own merits. And its merits are numerous. To see it is to feel a slice of real life. – Wilfred Okiche (Nigeria)
A well-told love story between three men, even just the trailer for Inxeba shook the senses and set social media ablaze for daring to expose the history and secrecy of a traditional rite of passage.
With a successful international run and festival awards, the African premiere finally happened at the Durban International Film Festival.
With its tackling of culturally sensitive material and its focus on levels of masculinity I am uncertain that the film will be well received by the mass South African audience – they may feel their culture is being slightly trampled on. I know I did.
With its melodramatic ending, which made the whole thing slightly comical, this is a miss for me. – Nthabiseng Mosieane (South Africa)
It wins the audience over
The intersection between (often toxic) masculinity and tradition is a theme in the air at the Durban International Film Festival this year. (Hope, a feature film by Themba Ntuli tackles many of the same issues as Inxeba through the story of a young student who gets involved in a gay relationship once he arrives at university.)
With Inxeba, John Trengove shows a mastery of his subject even though he is exploring a culture that is not his. Some feel he has no right to do so, but challenging tradition is always going to lead to controversy.
What he and his cast achieve is remarkable. Instead of provoking disgust, the creators succeed, through their intimate film, in drawing the viewer in and engaging with them. At first one is left uneasy by the tough traditional circumcision scenes.
But by the end? I felt empathy, understanding and compassion. – Domoina Ratsara (Madagascar)
Cinema is controversy
Is anybody allowed to show the secrets of a culture that is not their own?
The director of the terrific Inxeba may face some backlash for doing so.
Some will say it’s a film, it’s art, so the artist should be able to work on anything he wants to. Others will say it’s cultural appropriation and disrespectful. But no one will leave the cinema feeling the same way as they went in.
For me, great cinema is always controversial. - Djia Mambu (DR Congo)
Inxeba as a queer film
There’s a scene, right near the start of Inxeba, where childhood friends Xolani (Nakhane Touré) and Vija (Bongile Mantsai) meet one another again after a year apart and they have sex. It’s initiation season and they are caregivers, this year looking after four initiates between them.
Without exchanging a word they go to a derelict house on the mountain and they f*ck. They love. But there is no future here or anywhere else for them. Vija, an alpha male, is married with a newly born second child. Xolani is a gay factory worker unable to live his life because of his closet.
The sex scene in question, tastefully filmed and not sensationalised, is complex, simple, cold and lusty and anal. Straight audience members I spoke with afterwards struggled with it.
As a queer man I celebrate it. It made it perfectly clear from the get-go that we are not here for your judgment of our sex lives and we are not going to represent ourselves in some sterilised, misty-screened way with symphony music in the background. We have sex and we are conflicted and we are lusty and we are scared of our own masculinity.
That’s what played out for me as the gay love story progressed. We know, as queers, that there will be violence in this story, because we live in violence in a society that does not accept the reality of our lives.
It is not my place, as a white man, to interrogate the cultural issues in the film. But as a gay man I felt empowered by its frankness, overwhelmed by its beauty and its honesty, frustrated by the lies we must live and intrigued by what conversation Inxeba may provoke.
What happens when straight men’s gay secrets are spoken? When gay men’s closets get bust open?
Inxeba is a very important piece of cinema that follows on from Oliver Hermanus’ Skoonheid (Beauty) in establishing a line of particularly challenging queer South African film. – Charl Blignaut (South Africa)