The Wound (2017): Written by John Trengove, Thando Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu, directed by John Trengove. Starring: Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini, Thobani Mseleni. Running Time: 88 minutes.
As the push for recognitions and rights for LGBTQ peoples spreads around the world, more and more cultures will experience the uncomfortable tensions that are inevitable when longstanding norms and traditions are directly challenged by a rapidly changing world. This has been most visible recently within the Western world, but other areas of South American, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are going through similar struggles as the world becomes more interconnected. Movies like The Wound, the second feature from the South African director John Trengove, provide a cultural cross-cultural window for us all to consider the ways in which changing traditions around the world both mirror and differ from each other, and how we can best thread the needle between the two.
Twice a year, the young men of the Xhosa people in South Africa are gathered on a specific mountain for to be ritually circumcised. This is the opening of the film, and it is as affecting and difficult a scene as any I’ve seen this year. They then stay in specially-built camps on the mountain for a period of a few weeks while they heal, wearing nothing but a white robe and carrying a walking stick, and are led and organized by leaders who oversee the process and teach “the initiates” everything they are supposed to know in order to be seen as men within Xhosa society.
We soon learn that two of these leaders are, if not necessary gay (one of them is married with children), at least bisexual; every time they are on the mountain, they find secluded times and places to have sex. But what this means, for them and for their identities, is never openly spoken of. What they are and what they are doing is so wholly taboo and considered so entirely antithetical to what their cultures deem “acceptable” behaviors for men that, even when alone, they seemingly can’t allow themselves to contemplate it. It just has to be hidden, no matter the cost.
This sort of unspoken tension between the single idealized image of “The Man” that permeates the words and deeds of the elders during the ritual, and the far messier reality of what these people, is what gives this movie its primary staying power. So much is made of “being a man,” yet no one ever really seems to want to stop and ask each other- or even themselves- what, exactly, being a man means, and why it’s such a big deal.
How long these two have been doing this- coming to this mountain, leading the initiates, and stealing bits of time for their trysts- isn’t clear, but long enough that, perhaps, they’ve gotten a bit too complacent about it all, assuming that things could continue like this forever. One particular initiate, picked on by the other initiates constantly for being a soft city boy from a wealthy father, sees the whole ritual with a much more critical eye, and soon realizes the truth about the men supposedly leading them to becoming men. And from here, one secret after another starts to slip out, and it becomes clear that one thing or another will have to finally break.
It is, unfortunately, during this second part of the movie when the revelations begin that the film starts to lose a bit of steam. Everything about how the story builds makes sense, but things start to get a little predictable when things start to go wrong, and given how well the film works in the first half, it would have been nice to see it be a bit more unpredictable or unresolved in its resolution. This is also a film relying heavily on the handheld camera technique, and while that’s mostly fine, some scenes could have greatly benefited from a steadier hand.
But none of that is enough to weaken what is a remarkable film that offers a bit of a different cultural take on the struggles between homosexual identities and the cultures and traditions that still see it as something to be hidden and repressed. The Wound is a well-made, remarkably-acted film that deserves to be part of our cultural conversation going forward over how to reconcile the old with the new.