Film

Death and the initiate

BEAUTIFUL me: Kwanda, the initiate (Niza Jay Ncoyini) in Inxeba. Photograph courtesy www2.bfi.org.uk

THE POWDER KEG of young men on the cusp of adulthood is the culturally messy and politically dangerous one that filmmaker John Trengove and his team grasped with both hands and many hearts in Inxeba (the Wound), which first saw light of day in 2017. It proved to be a trigger for many South Africans, and went through a gamut of banning orders and legislation that became more about the gesture of shutting it up than about the work itself. You can now see it on Showmax.

Touching very sensitive issues around rituals secret to the mainstream of society, the work is utterly magnificent in its edginess and narrative clarity. But it is not a surprise that such aggressive umbrage was taken at the time of its release.

Ours as a society is broadly art illiterate. This is clear not only from the unempathetic comments by South African current arts minister Nathi Mthethwa, but also by events such as The Spear, a 2010 artwork parodying then-president Jacob Zuma by Brett Murray which inflamed Zuma supporters to the extent that City Press vendors feared for their lives; Shackville – a part of the Fallist movement in 2016 – which saw the public burning of artworks regardless of their contents or context, the current inflamed and embarrassing situation at the National Arts Council and the appalling state of much of this country’s art institutions, such as the South African State Theatre, to name a few other situations.  

In this film, we meet Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a caregiver employed by well-to-do folk who believe in the value of their son Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) being submitted to the ancient rituals of circumcision. The terrain is speckled with nuances surrounding haves and have nots, the emerging issue of sexuality in a context ripe with experimentation as well as strongly held bias and a religious sense of taboo. It’s also replete with the medical horrors of bush circumcision in which many young men can – and have – become infected and die because they are circumcised with instruments that have not been sterilised.

This becomes a very dangerous loophole in the story’s thunderous yet devastatingly subtle narratives. Relationships are kept and honoured behind closed doors, in the wilderness of the Eastern Cape, but things remain tenuous because the secrets are very dangerous. Jobs and lives out of the context of the area where the ritual happens must be honoured. And the denouement of the work takes a turn that is subtle, desperate and violent but handled masterfully.

The work is a coming together of immense talents, from its costume design and casting to its music, sense of space and narrative completion and the rich and dangerously complex portrait it paints of elders in a superstitious community is complete dynamite. If you value the ethos of rituals in a society, if you know the history of banning orders slapped onto artistic productions from South Africa’s past, and if you respect the integrity of secrecy in an evolved urban society, this film is a must-see. It’s not just a fable or a story: it’s something that should be on the educational shelves of any self-respecting institution.

Inxeba (The Wound) is directed by John Trengove. Presented in isiXhosa with English subtitles, it features a cast headed by Monde Bambelo, Zimi Banisi, Jan Bloxham, Gamelihle Bovana, Halalisani Bradley Cebekhulu, Mpho Diamond, Hellman Hlomuka, Caswell Sabelo Mabona, Menzeleli Majola, Bongile Mantsai, Thando Mhlontlo, Gabrile Mini, Thobani Mseleni, Zwelakhe Mtsaka, Niza Jay Ncoyini, Siphosethu Ngcetane, Loyiso ‘Lloyd’ Ngqavana, Sibabalwe Ngqavana, Luxolo Ngqunge, Anga Ntsepe, Inga Owede, Refiloe Ramatlapeng, Nakhane Touré, Luyanda L Vongo. Written by Malusi Bengu, Thando Mgqolozana and John Trengove, it is based on a story by John Trengove and Batana Vundla. It is produced by Cait Pansegrouw and Elias Ribeiro, and features creative input by João Orecchia (music), Paul Ozgur (director of photography), Matthew Swanepoel (editing), Cait Pansegrouw (casting), Bobby Cardoso and Solly Sithole (production design) and Lehasa Molloyi (costumes). It is available on ShowMax.

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