There are a number of films which try to exemplify what being a man means in the current world. It’s a topic which is a cause for debate, as a lot of archaic dinosaurs fade into non-existence, and the idea of a headstrong, powerful male gives way to that of an understanding, considerate gentleman. No film tackles this quite so uniquely as ‘The Wound’, which may have a unique setting and local cultural significance, yet still retains a global relevance.
A handful of South African boys are gathering to take part in Ukwaluka, a traditional initiation into manhood practiced by the Xhosa people. Xolani is one of the men who guide the boys into manhood; for him, it’s a yearly ritual to escape the city and return to the mountains, and reunite with his friend Vija. He is put in charge of one boy, Kwanda, who soon discovers a secret about Xolani’s sexuality and threatens to expose it.
Ukwaluka itself is an extremely secretive and taboo tradition - it involves ritualistic circumcision in an unsterile environment, and generally entails boys proving their strength and fearlessness. It becomes a boiling pot for aggression, bullying and homophobia, as the young men struggle against each other to prove their worth.
Director and co-writer John Trengove is quite clear about the boundaries of his responsibilities on this subject. “As a white man, representing marginalised black realities that are not my own, the situation is of course complicated,” he says. “It was important to me that the story mirrors this problem. The character of Kwanda is an outsider to the traditional world who expresses more or less my own ideas about human rights and individual freedom. He’s also the problem. His preconceptions create jeopardy and crisis for others who have much more to lose than him.”
The issue of homosexuality is handled in a variety of ways as the film progresses. From the young and brash initiates, it’s a derogatory slur. To Xolani, it’s a fact of nature, yet something he still feels shame about. Sex scenes range from rough and fleeting to sensual and passionate. The more Xolani is threatened by the exposure of his relationship with Vija, the more questionable his actions become. The conclusion itself is shocking and extremely unexpected - perhaps not implausible, but definitely drastic and not entirely congruent with the rest of the film.
‘The Wound’ is a great look at how tradition and modernity are coming to head.
The acting is impressively natural - Trengove says, “We had a few rules that were there to help us stay connected to the truth. All the roles including speaking extras had to be first language Xhosa men who had their own first-hand experience of the ritual.” This brings the most authentic version of the experience to the film, with the cast largely determining how a scene would run, particularly in group scenes. For the whole, it’s a brave technique, but one which seems to have paid off.
Given the freedom afforded to the actors, the film has been shot as handheld, which is largely suitable, however when there are sequences with violence, action or movement, the cinematography can get quite distracting and becomes difficult to follow. This contrasts with some shots of beautiful scenery - particularly those of stunning sunsets - which show off the South African wilderness.
With a well-considered concept, ‘The Wound’ is a great look at how tradition and modernity are coming to head. It’s not a criticism in any way, nor does it strive to provide a solution to the problem. Rather, the film is about holding up a mirror to the problem, and leaving the audience to evaluate the best answer. There’s no doubt that the definition of masculinity is in flux - the inescapable question is, how can the old concept find equilibrium with society’s progress?