In South Africa, the Xhosa tribe’s rites of passage into adulthood are still part of the culture. Every two years, they gather the boys who are about to become adults and bring them to a remote mountain to circumcise them. Then, the elders look after these teenagers while instructing them about the traditions of the tribe. After the ceremony, the leader names them men and their status within the tribe is confirmed.
Xolani returns to the mountains with a purpose. He is about to become a “caretaker” to attend to his friend’s son, Kwanda, who is going to participate in this year’s adulthood ritual. Unlike other boys, Kwanda was born in the capital, Johannesburg. He is a city boy and slightly feminine, just like Xolani. Kwanda’s father personally asks Xolani to take good care of Kwanda since he is worried he will get bullied and discriminated because of his appearance.
Xolani is an urban factory worker. Though his position is not high, he has stable source of income. He initially does not wish to go back to his hometown because the place is filled with unpleasant memories: he got bullied during the rituals because of his femininity. In the end, there was no caretaker willing to take care of him and was abandoned and left behind. However, Xolani still chooses to come back because his lover, Vija, lives there.
Every time Xolani comes back, he can stay with Vija. They will go to their secret places and have sex. For Xolani, it is probably the most important “ritual.” However, for Vija, it is extremely dangerous since he is married and has three children. He is also short of money, so Xolani helps him economically hoping he can provide for his family.
Unlike Xolani, Vija is very masculine. He is even assumed to be the manliest of men in the tribe. He is in charge of three “newborns” (boys ready to attend the adulthood ritual), and all of the boys hope to become a man like Vija.
Kwanda senses the abnormal relationship between Xolani and Vija. He boldly encourages Xolani to be who he truly is, but Xolani eventually cannot accept his true feelings and identity.
At the final moment of the ritual, Kwanda accidently sees Xolani and Vija sleeping together naked. How should they deal with this awkward situation?
This is South African director John Trengove’s first feature film, which drew a lot of attention worldwide and won him many awards. It was not only chosen as the opening film at Panorama Berlin Film Festival, but it was also shortlisted in the race for the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars. The film was also popular in Asia and Tengrove was selected Best New Director at the Taipei Film Festival last year.
When the film was screened in South Africa, it faced a lot of controversy. Trengove, as a white South African, was accused of cultural appropriation and of not understanding Xhosa culture. In Eastern Cape, where most Xhosa people live, it was fiercely boycotted. The theaters had no choice but to cancel its release, and it was rebranded as an X-rated film, even though it does not contain any explicit scenes. Also, the whole crew and actors received several death threats and had no choice but to hide for a while. Homophobia still is a big issue in the only country in Africa that recognizes same-sex marriage.
Xhosa is one of the most important tribes in South Africa with more than 8 million members, around 18% of the South African population. Xhosa language is the second official language of South Africa. In Khoisan language, Xhosa means “anger” or “fierceness,” which can explain the macho culture that surrounds the tribe and its ceremonies.
During the rituals portrayed in The Wound, the elders transmit orally their experiences and ancient stories to the next generation. Only with this knowledge, an individual can deserve the adult status in the tribe. Not achieving this status will be considered a humiliation for Xhosa people.
However, the circumcision tradition has also sparked many protests since the medical conditions during the act are completely unsafe. Since 1994, over 800 boys have died due to different infections, and many citizens have appealed to the government to stop this.
The critics have described this film as a heartbreaking tragedy about gay men hiding in the patriarchal society.
The saddest part of this film is the process of “self- castration.” We can see it in Xolani’s process of self-denial. When he has sex with Vija, he cannot even feel pleasure. After Vija has intercourse with him, Xolani gets rid of Vija’s hand with disgust. He knows that he just is an object for Vija to use, but he still longs for him. A desire that goes beyond sexual pleasure.
The second time that Xolani tries to get close to Vija and kisses him, he is pushed down forcing him to perform oral sex on him.
The third time, Xolani gives Vija money. Their interaction becomes more tender as Vija kisses him back.
The last time, they make love, but it becomes a dangerous situation after Kwanda sees everything.
Kwanda’s journey parallels that of Xolani and is a personification of his desires. Xolani longs for the urban life Kwanda has, but still needs to come back to his hometown because deep in his hearts he also wants to be accepted into this patriarchal society.
As the story develops, Kwanda’s questions Xolani’s actions: “Vija doesn’t love you, he doesn’t care about you. He uses you like a tool,” “why did you come back?” “Why you are so afraid to be your true self?”
Kwanda calls Xolani to face his desires to be brave and to challenge traditions.
Surely, in the end, we see how Xolani treats this “inner self.” He not only neglects it but also kills it. (Spoiler! Xolani kills Kwanda and, thus, his desires). Although Xolani can run away from this place and go to the city, he still chooses to repress himself and humbly wait for the patriarchal society to accept him, even though he has the lowest status in this society.
Certainly, the South African government should get involved and figure out a way to improve the health conditions of their rituals to prevent more deaths. However, it is difficult to judge the righteousness of their traditions from an external point of view. It is difficult for us to truly fathom Xolani’s acts.
The reason why this film has attracted so much attention may be curiosity for the “unknown.” Besides, the director did not even present the full details of the adulthood ritual since he could not have access to them (the ritual is very secretive, even the women of the tribe do not know anything about it.). So, the version we see on the film may be a meaningless simplification, which may or may have not also lead to the rejection to the film from the Xhosa tribe.
Gay men’s “castrated situation” in such a patriarchal society is a common recurring theme we have seen in filmographies from different countries, from the East to the West. It is a difficult situation to just be a spectator to these wounds and not be able to promote change. We can only hope from films of this sort to learn, to learn how to get rid of our prejudices and understand different cultures. Only this way we will be able to reach common ground that will help our society evolve.