“[Director John] Trengove is at his most effective as a filmmaker when addressing the audience through subtextual lines.”
by Ken Bakely
The rite of passage for young Xhosa men, known as Uwaluko, is shrouded in secrecy, though enshrined with the reverence of any long-held cultural belief. It’s a combination of physical and emotional demands, the gate through which every male must pass. They’re taken into isolation, in groups for a weeks-long ceremony among their elders, and they are circumcised, without anesthesia or modern surgical equipment. They must accept the pain with silence. The first scenes of John Trengove’s The Wound depict this procedure with the unshaken, clinical thoughtfulness that its participants do. The actors simulating the process understand its history and how it shapes their cultural identity. It’s presented to a global audience, not with shock and bemusement, but as a foundation of a larger thesis.
Trengove uses Uwaluko as the basis of Xhosa views of masculinity, externalizing an internal desire and transition. It’s not only that you endure the pain of the procedure, but that you do so without crying out, rendering oneself a monolith of endurance and strength. The very notion that The Wound would even acknowledge its existence has been a point of controversy among some Xhosa activists. However, the film avoids getting into the weeds of its own possible impact. Such self-stoked defenses would be beside the point, as it accesses more universal questions on what masculinity means in a contemporary world. While we’re tempted to protest the brutality of the circumcisions and move on without a second thought, Trengove directs with enough observant distance that Vija and Xolani’s conflicted responsibilities to their own communities and families are inherently resonant.
The main character, a factory worker named Xolani (Nakhane Touré), joins a group of initiates as an adult mentor, present for the stages of initiation and the rituals which accompany the process. It’s through his knowing eyes that Trengove explores ideas of what an initiated man should be. Xolani is gay, and he proceeds to carry out a clandestine relationship with his friend Vija (Bongile Mantsai). Any variance from aggressive heterosexuality is considered the antithesis of masculinity in many cultures. Here, it’s the individual identity that clashes against the conformist status quo. The Wound wisely chooses not to plunge into the hypothetical dramatic heights of a romantic plotline. As it does with the rituals, it utilizes this as a way to discuss our own relationship with expectations.
Because it’s balancing specified documentation against the boulders of social superego, it doesn’t try to co-opt the coming of age formulas of hard-fought individualist victories. Xolani is well past his coming of age, and unable to find a way out of the strict dogma guiding his entire life. The film carries this to multiple extremes: in the deceptively cookie-cutter nature of its conversations between Xolani and Vija, which really serve as gauges of their own feelings about defying the norm, and a sudden ending which shocks us back to a painfully believable final beat. In both cases, Trengove is at his most effective as a filmmaker when addressing the audience through subtextual lines. The story wanders as a consequence, although not automatically as a bug. The Wound gets as close as any movie could to defying its scattershot duality, or even better, using it as a jumping-off point to its thematic peaks.
To its credit, it does not end with wrapped-up guarantees, or distance us from its world. We’re always observers on the ground level. Unshowy cinematography and efficient acting render The Wound a work of abstractly drawn, yet firmly realized politics. For Xolani and Vija, fighting unforgiving traditionalism isn’t about trying to change the minds of old men, who will not be swayed by any of their feelings about love. Instead, they have to acknowledge where they find themselves in performance with others, and themselves. As Trengove shoots with that hard-cast point of origin, he forms a curious kind of Möbius strip. The lines between a plot and a concept fold over themselves, keep going, and never quite meet, yet there’s something hypnotic in its fronts, with the local against the global, and the past against the future.