The cut only only takes a fraction of a second, but the trauma it leaves behind takes a lifetime to heal. It happens every winter, as teenage boys of South Africa’s Xhosa culture are spirited up to the hills around their hometowns, stripped down and smothered in ghostly white paint, and told to spread their legs. Their foreskins are then sliced away by tribal surgeons, many of whom use rusted knives rather than sterile medical equipment. All the same, it’s absolutely forbidden for the initiates to scream out in pain. This is a rite of passage, the start of a three-week initiation ritual meant to confer manhood — boys cry, but men suffer in silence. As Nelson Mandela wrote in his memoir: “An uncircumcised Xhosa man is a contradiction in terms.”
Ukwaluka is a time-honored practice; it began long before Mandela himself endured the experience in 1934, and it still persists today in a 21st century world of luxury SUVs, nose rings, and iPhones. Masculinity and modernity may not be mutually exclusive terms, but Xhosa traditions reveal a certain tension between the two forces, and Ukwaluka endures because the act of protesting against it is itself considered to be an irrevocable sign of weakness. Despite a rash of recent laws and initiatives designed to make the ordeal safer, 34 boys died during the ritual between June and July of 2013 alone, some from infection and others from the eight days of starvation that follows the procedure. Some were murdered.
It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say that “The Wound” doesn’t judge Xhosa society for the severity of its gender politics or the fatal symptoms that often result from them, but the film does a fine job of rendering its own judgements irrelevant. Made by a white Johannesburg native and destined for a predominately Western audience (a liberal demographic for whom the very idea of adult circumcision is a moral crisis), John Trengrove’s nuanced and deeply probing debut feature is less interested in the “wrongness” of Ukwaluka than in how such a hyper-patriarchal ritual might respond to some internal resistance. Namely, homosexuality.
Musician Nakhane Touré, wonderful in his first film role, stars as a factory worker named Xolani. A clenched and soft-spoken twenty-something who slips through a world in which men are only as big as their voices, Xolani spends his vacations working as one of the caregivers who guides initiates through Ukwaluka. The job doesn’t seem to suit his reserved nature — the caregivers are required to be part nurses and part fraternity pledge masters — but Xolani sees the gig as an opportunity to intimately reconnect with his childhood friend, Vija (Bongile Mantsai, who bulldozes through the movie like a closeted Stanley Kowalski). The two men have been doing this for years, using the heteronormativity of the Ukwaluka ritual as a perfect cover for their desperate trysts. Vija’s wife never appears on screen (no women do), but there’s never any sense that she would be suspicious.
The premise naturally evokes a film like “Brokeback Mountain,” which penetrated the rugged masculinity of the American cowboy in much the same way as “The Wound” challenges that of the Xhosa tribesman, but Trengrove complicates things by assigning Xolani to a queer initiate. The son of a super-rich Johannesburg business man, Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) wears expensive running shoes, he speaks English, and he rocks the kind of style that suggest he’s kind of a hipster back home. Most of all, Kwanda sees Xolani and Vija for what they are, as he’s naturally inclined to look for others like himself. And yet, even in an environment where he’s constantly bullied by the other boys as they wander the dusty hillsides and wait for their dicks to heal, Kwanda still doesn’t fully recognize the destabilizing threat that homosexuality poses — or is imagined to pose — to a culture that prides itself on such rigid notions of maleness. In turn, he also doesn’t recognize the threat that he poses to Xolani and Vija, whose secret he uses for both strength and leverage.
“The Wound” deeply internalizes its director’s perspective as an outsider, Trengrove using Kwanda as his way into a very well-researched story that still isn’t his to tell. That approach inevitably wedges some distance between the film and its subject matter, but Trengrove’s observational style tends to sharpen the drama, pointing it towards violence. He keys into the tension between acceptance and otherness, outside and in, the past and the present. That duality is manifest in the environment, where house music collides against tribal songs and the reactors of a nuclear power plant loom in the background as the half-naked initiates hunt down a goat. Trengrove shoots with an unfussy sense of reality, but he creates a lot of friction by contrasting timeless closeups with wider shots of the arid yellow-green landscape; he creates a lot of friction just by cutting between Xolani’s eyes and taller shots of the man’s head, capped in a casual beanie.
The material seems ripe for a familiar coming-of-age plot, but the movie is more concerned about effect than experience, more concerned about the wound than the suffering it causes. As a result, Kwanda’s experience is twisted into the stuff of a terse ethnographic thriller, nearly as foreign to the city boy as it is to a straight white American viewer. Seen through that lens, the Ukwaluka comes to weaponize the mere question of queer identity, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody gets hurt.
Of course, there’s a drawback to Trengrove’s remove as well, and you can feel his grip on the story coming loose as Kwanda becomes more involved in the situation between Xolani and his lover. “The Wound,” despite its sacred distance, sets a trap in which each of its characters will be ensnared in his own way, and the film struggles to victimize these men while remaining largely voyeuristic. The plot ends in a place that feels honest and true, but it gets lost in a kind of narrative no-man’s land on its way there. “The Wound” understands how masculinity can’t afford to be mutable, and it understands just how mutable men can be, but it’s hard to say very much about strength in a story that ultimately defines its characters by their weaknesses alone.
“The Wound” is now playing in theaters.