Controversial Xhosa initiation film 'Inxeba' is not about secrets, but love
A film about the relationship between two initiates examines the gender concepts embedded in African conventions
The film Inxeba finally opens in South African cinemas on Friday but we've been hearing about it for more than a year. It has won dozens of awards at festivals around the world and this month narrowly missed out on an Oscar nomination.
Most of the noise coming from local mouths has been about how the film exposes the secrecy of Xhosa initiation traditions. But after watching Inxeba (The Wound) this week, I realised that none of these people had actually seen the movie.
It is not an exposé of secret rituals. It is a love story. The fact that the two lovers are men creates a different controversy, that of how masculinity is presented in Xhosa tradition and how rigid and oppressive these rules can be when a man does not conform to the norms laid down in deeply traditional societies.
The movie is not based on the novel about a botched circumcision, by Thando Mgqolozana, A Man Who is Not a Man, but it draws on the same context and the book was used as a reference for the film.
An article published on South African History Online neatly summarised the central questions raised by the film: "Does identifying as gay mean one is less of a man? Does being a man mean you cannot identify as gay? What does being a man entail? What are the detrimental attributes and contradictions of this subscribed manhood? What pressures do human beings face in upholding their manhood?"
Patrick Godana, of Sonke Gender Justice in the Eastern Cape, said that occasionally it happened that a family, aware of their son's homosexuality, thought that going to initiation school would "fix" him and make him a "proper man".
He said initiation schools could be oppressive to straight young men, not just those trying to hide their homosexuality.
Director bound for Hollywood
'Inxeba' was named best foreign film by the African-American Film Critics Association and best first feature by the British Film Institute.
South African director John Trengove has subsequently been signed by the Creative Artists Agency in Los Angeles, which also represents Steven Spielberg, 'Selma' director Ava DuVernay, and Barry Jenkins, who directed the Oscar-winning 'Moonlight'
"Initiation schools are filled with masculinity and the boys are expected to behave like what they are told a man should be," he said.
"Going to initiation is part of the culture but it shouldn't define a man. I think people need to be more open-minded. Men are taught to be strong, brave, take risks and protect their families, but these things should not prevent men from expressing their feelings, whatever those feelings are."
One of Inxeba's scriptwriters, Malusi Bengu, said the film's intention was to question homosexuality in Africa. "The idea was triggered by statements coming from African leaders such as Robert Mugabe, who said homosexuality is 'un-African'," said Bengu.
"We wanted to take a personal stand against that, to challenge and question models of African masculinity. We also wanted to explore the
seclusion of men in the mountains in an
environment of African hypermasculinity."
Inxeba is set in the mountains of the Eastern Cape during a period of Xhosa initiation, known as ulwaluko. The two main characters, Xolani and Vija, have a secret sexual relationship that they engage in once a year during this time.
As a Xhosa, Bengu himself has been to the mountains, as has actor Nakhane Touré, who plays Xolani. As a gay man, Touré has had to deal with the kind of prejudice portrayed in the film. Bengu thinks the personal experiences of cast and crew added great depth and meaning to the film.
"Nakhane lived in the mountains and went through the experience, so he was not just acting," Bengu said. "We wanted to portray real, living people. This kind of storytelling is about collaborating in the exploration of a sensitive topic. It is not a fairytale."
Apart from expanding the understanding of different expressions of sexuality, the filmmakers are driven by the need for African stories to be told by African people of all races and genders. Director John Trengove is a white man who has taken much criticism for daring to tell a story about Xhosa men.
Bengu is impatient with this short-sightedness. Although African stories and characters have sometimes been misrepresented when relayed through a filter of Western culture, he thinks the emotional centre of Inxeba resonates with all people.
TRIBE AND TRUSTED
In a related development, it was announced this week that South African actor Luzuko Nteleko plays a gay man in the third season of LGBTQ drama 'About Him', which will be broadcast from February 14 on the Sky channel.
Nteleko's co-star is US actor and rapper Milan Christopher.
One of the episodes features Christopher and Nteleko wearing African cultural attire, but Nteleko told TshisaLIVE that the producers "created their own tribe" to avoid offending South Africans.
"I keep hearing 'Let's tell our own stories' from people who by 'we' mean black people. What are these stories that we're supposed to tell and how do we tell them when they make people angry?"
Cultural activist and founder of the Kara Heritage Institute Mathole Motshekga is of the opinion that people who have not been to initiation should not see what happens at initiation, saying that we as Africans cannot tell our stories to the world until we as Africans understand our own stories.
"Western Africans look down on their origins," said Motshekga. "We Africans are the ones who need to propagate our own stories. The traditions are secret for a reason. We can't tell the secrets to people who are unappreciative of them."
Bengu does not dispute that African people should tell Africa's stories, but feels it is unrealistic to exclude non-African involvement. It is difficult to make a South African film without foreign funding, and why should we not share our stories with the world?
Motshekga disagrees: "The new generation needs to learn about their own stories so that they can narrate how they want to tell their stories. Our traditions must first be learnt by African children before we mix our cultures with modern-day challenges faced by young people."