"I'm very happy. It's good to be a man," claims one of the participants of the Xhosa ulwaluko ceremony to a circle of elders in Inxeba (The Wound). John Trengrove's poignantly harrowing debut feature interrogates this alleged correspondence between conformist masculinity and individual wellbeing, masterfully utilizing a culturally specific situation to deconstruct the contemporary pertinence and hypocrisies of heteronormative biases worldwide.
Xolani is a South African factory worker who withdraws to the East Cape wilderness annually to assist in the ulwaluko initiationritual. A predominantly Xhosa tradition, the ensuing rites of passage are generally unfamiliar outside of the African continent—it is also forbidden to share details of the practice. Existing documentation of the ceremony describes it as a mandatory circumcision to prove one's suitability to adulthood, followed by a one to two month-long period of seclusion and degradation. Unlike Ameri-European society, wherein male coming of age is conventionally determined by years lived, age is irrelevant to the Xhosa if they are yet to undergo the ritual. An individual can be considered a social pariah until they bear the genital scar obtained through ulwaluko.
In Inxeba (The Wound), Xolani's duty as a 'caregiver' is to support his assigned 'initiate' Kwanda throughout the arduous ceremonial transition into manhood. However, Xolani's adherence to communal traditions serve as a mere façade for his own transgressive pilgrimage—within the empty African landscapes, the retreat allows him to rekindle a troubled romance with married caregiver Vija. Although their tryst has endured with minimal suspicion, the arrival of middle-class and homosexual Kwanda threatens the exposure of the heretofore clandestine affair.
Throughout Inxeba, the tragedy of Xolani and Vija's relationship is predicated on an irreconcilable clash between the self and the culture in which they exist. Even as South Africa remains the only African country where same-sex marriages and adoption are now legally permissible, homophobia remains a significant concern. Personal prejudices are inevitably a cause, yet subsistent traditional beliefs also contribute to irrational views of LGBT+ people. For instance stabane, a word that translates to 'two organs' or 'hermaphrodite' in Zulu, is often used to describe both male and female homosexuals. Homosexuality is therefore incongruously linked to the intersexed body in certain African milieus, and remains an equally perplexing concept within the Xhosa community due to its gendered delegation of social responsibilities. As ulwaluko grants male members the right to obtain wives and conceive children, it is generally unfathomable for successfully 'initiated' men to also be homosexual—in fact, Anathi Ntozini and Hlonelwa Ngqangweni report that some young Xhosa men undergo the ritual precisely to 'cure' their same-sex attraction. Inxebathus exposes institutional homophobic biases that prevail within this culture. Even as Xolani and Vija's endurance of ulwaluko provide them with the revered signifier of masculinity, their sexual orientation, if revealed, would destroy their social reputations.
A temptation arises to consider Inxebaas a companion piece to Senegalese auteur Ousmane Sembène's Moolaadé, due to the films' mutual focus on ritualistic genital modification in contemporary Africa. Yet whereas Sembène's work acts as an indictment of the persistent gender inequalities that permit female genital mutilation, Trengrove's depiction of ulwaluko is less politically charged. Unlike FGM, South African Children's Act 38 protects the individual's right to refuse the procedure. Thus, despite the undeniable social pressure, participation in ulwaluko is ultimately decided out of free will.
As a white South African, Trengrove's suitability to engage with this covert Xhosa tradition has generated a degree of controversy. Nevertheless, he tactfully avoids denouncing the ritual, demonstrating a clear understanding of its communal importance. Even as the ceremony poses numerous health risks and recorded deaths, 10,000 such circumcisions are documented annually. Inxeba's frequent long-takes and hand-held camerawork serve to authentically recreate ulwaluko,rather than critique it. Instead, the film's intertwining drama merely exposes the ideological hypocrisy of the practice, wherein a certain notion of masculinity is thwarted by nonconformity to heteronormative constructions.
The ingenuity of Trengrove's work thus arises from his impeccable utilization of a specifically African practiceto deconstruct gender and sexuality-based biases globally. The film permits spectators unfamiliar with ulwaluko to witness how heteronormative masculinity is formed in other cultures. Trengrove does not criticize how the ceremony tests an individual's capability of adulthood, per se—rather, he deconstructs the shallow incongruity of how those who prove themselves equal on such terms are nevertheless rendered outcasts because of their sexual orientation. As the restrictions on LGBT+ rights to adoption and marriage in most countries suggests, entrenched homophobia in institutionalized gender construction is not solely an African matter. In Inxeba, while the boundless East Cape landscapes dominate the background of the frames, a lack of landmarks fails to distinguish the location from any other—while the anachronistic clash between the initiates' traditional clothing and the caregivers' contemporary costumes convolute the temporal setting. The concurrent use of shallow focus close-ups and two-shots isolates the characters, a harsh reminder that the open continuation of their relationship would result in complete ostracization. While the love experienced between the two men in Inxebaisfundamentally external to time and place, its suitability remains determined by society.With each shot, Trengrove foregrounds the tragic paradox wherein social constructs dictate what is considered 'natural,' and how this institutional oppression all too often compromises individual wellbeing.
Throughout Inxeba, the prevalence of the Xhosa language and traditions, coupled with Trengrove's objective camera-work, authentically captures a specific Eastern Cape milieu. Yet even as Trengrove exposes that society's latent homophobia, the scope of his criticism is by no means restricted to it. The filminstead demonstrates how the paradoxes and hypocrisies that oppress the LGBT+ community are transnational and transcultural. Regardless of one's milieu, the film heartbreakingly deconstructs the diminishment of rights as a practice that operates under different guises. While it may be "good to be a man," Inxebareveals the pitiful reality wherein comfort with the self is only achieved when one conforms to social norms.