Critically acclaimed South African film shakes the cisheteropatriarchal table at the perfect time
Words: Lelo Meslani | Images: Supplied
There’s an elephant in the room that’s overlooking everyone, and it’s threatening the patriarchal system in art, society and the cultural landscape as we know it. Just to describe this elephant in a basic synopsis, the most talked about local film since 2005’s Tsotsi, Inxeba (The Wound) is about a lonely factory worker, Xolani, who joins the men of his community in the mountain in Eastern Cape to initiate a group of teenage boys into manhood. When a defiant initiate from the city discovers Xolani’s best kept secret, his entire existence begins to unravel. Although I won’t be giving a critical review of the film, I am going to uncover Inxeba’s challenge to shift perceptions and ideologies. In saying so, I am choosing to not engage with anyone who has not seen the film. Get your facts straight.
It’s important now more than ever to reveal the ramifications of our past, present, and future. We claim to be a diverse, “rainbow nation” – yet the silencing of queer voices and queer experiences, i.e. protests causing select cinemas to not show Inxeba (The Wound), violent death threats being sent to the cast involved, in our society has crept up, and everyone wants a word in. South Africa’s most awarded film of all time, Inxeba (The Wound) is disrupting deep-seated homophobia in art and society in general.
Inxeba is part of a new wave of African cinema. This kind of filmmaking is the polar opposite of those ‘white saviour’ narratives typically made about Africa – which are usually told from a Western perspective that trades in naïve expectations, poverty porn, ethnographic exploitation and cultural voyeurism.
We’re constantly negotiating queer identity in Africa, the conversations opening up shows that there’s room for us to change attitudes and drive discussion on what exactly is “un-African”. The reality is far more complex, but the opinions that have voiced out on social media platforms by cis-heteorsexual [Xhosa] men have been nothing but disturbing. These violent men and women, who have probably not watched the film, have made shallow judgments and have justified their reasoning for not being homophobic as “saving their culture”. There is nothing to save. There are no “secrets” being revealed. As far as the film is concerned, everything depicted is public knowledge.
Inxeba is not a fantasy or fictional story. It is a true story and breakthrough narrative that resists neat categorisation – it’s equal parts coming-of-age story, love story, and intense psychological thriller. We can all agree, including the director John Trengrove himself, that a white man representing marginalized black realities that are not his own is highly problematic. With that said, I’d like to point out the fact that the cultural context of the film was treated with tact and sensitivity, by a crew and cast that is Xhosa.
On-screen representations of gay men tend to be one-dimensional. They range from the "gay best friend", to those "not very gay" suburban couples that only ever show polite affection so as not to offend, to characters in faux-charitable ‘gays are people too’ stories, and many others. I applaud the casting of the protagonist and supporting actor being actual queer men.
The release of Inxeba couldn’t have come at a better time. After the Oscars run, international awards and critical acclaim, the local cinema showing of the film in February, “the month of love” shows exactly how love is a spectrum. When we speak about black love, it is often shown in a cis-heterosexual setting – a man and woman. We tend to forget that love is diverse and love is complex. Xolani, Nakhane’s character shows at the end of the film that one would through any extreme to protect the one they love.
“How can love destroy a nation?” - Kwanda (Inxeba)
Questioned about what love means to him, Nakhane, answered "I've spent a lot of time recently mulling over the subject of love. When I was a child, love was devotion and discipline. As I got older, it morphed into other things. I've also spent some time wondering if love even exists. If it's a construct we need to make life more bearable. But I can't be that cynical. It's many things: It's freedom, it's NOT ownership, it's devotion – spiritual or not, it's sacrifice, it's letting go. It's wishing another person well in their lives. I guess from this answer you can tell that I know f*ck all about it. It's an interesting journey figuring it out, though"
As widely elusive as the concept may be, hyper-masculine men seem to feel threatened by the depiction of two men in love – particularly in a setting they deem pivotal to their becoming: the recent social media backlash that the film received confirms that.
However, it is always interesting to note how online activism helps change attitudes. Consider how Loyiso Bala came out as a Bible-thumping homophobe condemning the “cultural assassination” that is Inxeba [with guns blazing], yet later changed his tune after being pulled by his virtual edges, on the timeline… Calling someone out on social media can challenge a wide range of overlapping systems that create oppression. These systems include racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and queer-antagonism. Folks are tired of letting bigotry slide. If anything, Inxeba (The Wound) has shown us that our country may not be as progressive as it claims to be – and the access that some of us have to queer-friendly spaces may lull us to the wider reality. We need to all work together to prevent and stop the daily violence against queer bodies. Check yourself, and those around you.