"You must be joking," he said. "Look around. Think for a moment. It's the middle of the night, not a soul anywhere. In this city, at this time. Not a dog in the gutter. Empty. Except for this elephant - and you're going to tell your idiot friends about it? Why? Do you think they'll understand it? Do you think it will matter to them? You must understand, this is one of those moments. One of those moments you keep to yourself. Something like this - this is yours. It belongs only to you. And me. Only to us." - Téa Obreht
Inxeba (The Wound) has been released in South African cinemas to mixed reviews. Following a highly controversial build-up to its release back home, its arrival has warranted various and, at times, polarised responses from different interest groups in society.
Inxeba, though, merits a more nuanced analysis, both of the film and its effect within South African discourse.
When the trailer was released almost a year ago, much of the controversy seemed to be about the exposing of the initiation rite of Ukoluka and the fact that this particular African story was being told through a white lens.
Fast-forward to the release of the film and many of the same voices are crying out that it was not an accurate portrayal of Ukoluka. Though these responses seem at odds, they are both able to exist and hold space at the same time.
Considering the initial screenings of Inxeba were mostly abroad (Sundance Film Festival, World Cinema Amsterdam, Philadelphia Film Festival), it becomes a film that caters to a white gaze, utilising Xhosa stories as its tool. This is a form of "cultural imperialism". Our culture has been taken, sold to Europe before returning to us.
Director John Trengove states, "Thando [Mgqolozana, the screenwriter] wrote his own version of the treatment, filtering my ideas through his own experiences and opening up narrative possibilities within the frame of the ritual."
There is something to be said on the culture of collaboration and how to ethically appropriate, if that's even possible. Although Trengove did research and collaborated in Inxeba’s creation, his ideas were still at the forefront and it can be seen that many of the ritual aspects in the film were flawed. That is because research cannot replicate lived experience.
Inxeba is not meant to serve as an exposé of initiation rites, though. To look at it as such takes away from its actual value. Instead, it explores a relationship between two gay men in a hyper-masculine context.
Initiation school becomes a microcosm for a greater societal norm of toxic masculinity. The love story between Xolani and Vija can be found in many South African contexts because South Africa is dealing with a patriarchal problem that often reveals itself in hyper-masculinity.
However, reiterating that the story could be set in many other contexts, using initiation school as a setting calls for assurance from the creators that this was not just a marketing ploy. If it was, they must be honest about it because it was a bloody good one.
Ukoluka has been a topic of hot debate in post-apartheid South Africa for years and has been explored in many other works. None of these have brought about as big an outcry as Inxeba. This brings into question whether the offense is taken from initiation being used as a vehicle to market the film, or if it is initiation being used as a vehicle to explore relevant homosexual narratives that’s offensive?
The latter is a homophobic response that will not allow any valuable critique of Inxeba to exist.
Inxeba has served as a mirror to many aspects of South African society. It cannot be discounted that many homosexual people share experiences with the characters in the story. It can also not be discounted that many of the responses to the film were eerily similar to the homophobia and hyper-masculine behaviour exhibited on our screens.
This further calls into question the role of Xhosa men in curbing such responses. The brand of manhood that is taught in the mountains is not one-dimensional and differs from tribe to tribe. This is because it is on men to teach the initiates there. If our brand of manhood is to be patriarchal, this is the conversation we will carry with us to the mountain. Which Xhosa men are empathetic enough to enter dialogues with each other maturely?
We’re not ready if our first reaction is one of anger and protest and trying to ban films such as Inxeba. It speaks to a highly oppressive disposition. Greater consideration has to be given to why and how these behaviours occur.
The quote from Téa Obreht’s novel, The Tiger’s Wife, illustrates a reverence that also exists for the secrets of Ukoluka. To ukoluka means to share accountability. This is the esteem in which it is meant to be held. It is meant to be the bond to which many men are tied; the sacred space that is respected.
But there comes a time when such silences have to be broken, when secrets have to be told. There is a history of outsiders coming in to traditional spaces and trying to act as medium or liberator. There are voices and stories that refuse to be ignored any longer, elephants that will make us uncomfortable.
There are some secrets that can’t be kept. In these occurrences we have to consider deeply the role of the outsider, its history of violence and how they interact with our sacred spaces. Be it Ukoluka or a love story not told, all these hold weight and deserve reverence in the way they are told.
- Xabiso Vili is a pansexual, polyamorous Xhosa man who has been to the mountain and constantly navigates manhood through his writing.
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