John Trengove’s debut feature explores how colonization subtly re-defined an ancient Xhosa rite of passage into manhood.
John Trengove’s first feature film The Wound uses a fictional depiction of a real ritual from the Xhosa, South Africa’s 2nd largest ethnic group, to explore the way colonization invisibly redefined masculinity. This ritual, called ukwaluka, takes place in a mountain camp over the course of several weeks: an older male (the caregiver) guides a teenage boy (the initiate) through healing as the young man recovers from an unanesthetized circumcision. Initiate Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) is sent to the ritual by his father, who worries that the influence of Kwanda’s wealthy, urban mother has made him “soft” — code for Kwanda’s suspected homosexuality. Kwanda’s caregiver is Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a family friend whose main motivation is to escape his lonely city life for a few weeks and see his lover, Vija (Bongile Mantsai), the camp’s “alpha male”.
Although the writers of The Wound are members of the Xhosa, John Trengove is a white South African, and he has been criticized for exposing this private cultural practice to a wider audience. As the men repeatedly intone during the ritual, one cannot talk about what happens on the mountain. However, The Wound does not offer a detailed look at the ritual itself — the week the initiates spend in a hut only takes a few minutes of screentime. The film focuses instead on how the rituals only have meaning because the participants imbue it in them.
The elders of the Xhosa present the ritual as their way of upholding and perpetuating an ancient and traditional masculine ideal. Yet as a Canadian viewer far removed from this cultural context, the vision of masculinity on display in this community felt uncomfortably familiar: a constant game of one-upmanship via insults, homophobic slurs, and heterosexual bragging. These methods of male affirmation in the Xhosa are similar to those I’ve encountered in the West. Kwanda’s reluctance to participate leads a fellow initiate to accuse him of “sleeping with men”. Being a heterosexual man — a real man — is linked to a brutal, domineering vision of masculinity: both initiates and caregivers insinuate that to be “weak” is to be gay (and vice versa). Hence, one infallible way for anyone to prove their own heterosexuality is to bully those around them.
Although the Xhosa elders view maintaining the tradition of ukwaluka as a way to counteract Western influence, the ritual, in its current form, insidiously passes on an older form of colonization. Indeed, this archetype of masculinity, defined by homophobia and a violent impulse towards dominance, is a product of South Africa’s colonial history. In his comparative study of Kabyle (northern Algeria) and French masculinities, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that the concept of masculinity as violent and domineering is often perceived as natural and unchanging because men in power perpetuate this claim in order to stay in power. If people were aware that this model of masculinity was a construct and not the only way to be masculine, the power hierarchy itself would be questioned and vulnerable to social change. The Wound suggests that the Xhosa follow the same pattern that Bourdieu identified in other communities.
If this model of masculinity is only a construct which needs to be taught and assimilated, then homophobia, similarly, isn’t innate, but learned. Historian Marc Epprecht and sociologist Stephen O. Murray have documented the way in which European colonialism introduced homophobia to southern Africa through the enforcement of Christianity and the creation of a European legal system. Even current labels for sexual identities are European. Epprecht notes that these labels were first translated into Xhosa in the 1980s. The Wound subtly hints at how local populations internalized Christian values over many decades, to such an extent that they became foundational to their own identity. Vija, the man everyone else in the camp admires, wears a large gold cross around his neck. Even the mythic past of the Xhosa is paradoxically reimagined as Christian, with Kwanda citing Jesus as a foundational historical figure in the same breath as Shakawho, a 19th century Zulu monarch who led the resistance against the British.
Post-Colonial African leaders were complicit in continuing to define masculinity along European lines. In describing colonization as an emasculating experience (for example, white people often called African men “boy”), of which homosexuality was allegedly a symptom, post-colonial African nationalist leaders were criticizing colonization, but they were also adopting the language and beliefs of the colonizer. In a postcolonial context, where toxic ideals of masculinity had been fully implemented, the emergence of LGBT movements could in turn be maliciously framed as western attacks on African culture. The Xhosa elders who visit the mountain use this line of argument when they tell the initiates that now they are men, they must reject the ways of the city and white people. Because the West and the city are seen as emasculating influences, homosexuality is framed by men in power as more than a personal threat: it is also a menace to the masculine emerging nation. In much the same way colonizers used heterosexist norms to enforce their power, nationalist movements and leaders — ranging from presidents and dictators to community leaders — have embraced the colonial language of homophobia to consolidate a hierarchical, patriarchal system of power under the false pretense that it is “authentic”.
The ultimate tragedy of The Wound lies in Xolani choosing to protect what the ukwaluka ritual stands for, even though it is directly harmful to him. As a believer in ritual, Xolani thinks he, rather than the culture, is the “problem”. Knowing that Kwanda refuses to honour the ritual’s secrecy, and may therefore expose Xolani and Vija’s taboo sexual relationship, Xolani murders Kwanda — preserving both his secret and the oppressive system. Although we learn that Xolani believes that “things are what they are”, it isn’t clear why he chooses to defend this ritual to such violent lengths. One of the film’s shortcomings is that Xolani remains such an opaque character. Kwanda, on the other hand, resists the ritual, valuing actions over symbols. Raised in the city, and presumably more aware of alternatives, he repeatedly challenges Xolani’s decision to follow the tradition: he doesn’t want to end up like Xolani, a man forced to follow a model of masculinity that directly harms him.
Kwanda’s father sent his son to the ukwaluka ritual thinking it would teach him to be a tough, straight man. Instead, Kwanda learned that the ritual was more about pretending than it was about real transformation. In The Wound, being a man isn’t about being a naturally dominant person, but about learning to submit yourself to a patriarchal model that demands heterosexuality. The idea professed by the elders and caregivers that there is an authentic way of being a man, is as much of a lie as the belief that the mountain camp, situated just a few kilometres away from a looming nuclear power plant, is still pre-colonial and natural. The ritual does not return the culture to its pure, ancient, pre-colonial roots, but instead carries on the devastating effects of colonization well into future generations, decades after independence. The only hope of true liberation lies in people realizing that their rituals do not have innate characteristics, but depend solely on the values that they attribute to them. Only with this realization can a culture be changed and liberated from colonial thought without destroying its ancient traditions.