THE WOUND ★★★★
(MA15+) 88 minutes
How many great films do you know about male circumcision? Me neither – it's a contradiction in terms. Men make films about all kinds of unpleasant, violent, confronting things – mass murder, torture, combat – but that little snip is just too much for us lads.
The only depictions I've seen in movies were of the traditional Jewish practice performed on the eighth day of a newborn's life, and usually shot from a safe distance.
In The Wound, a group of Xhosa men go into the South African mountains for three weeks to initiate a group of boys into manhood. The first part of this is the traditional circumcision, usually performed on boys aged 16 and over, and it's filmed close-up and personal, if still indirectly.
The boys, naked except for a traditional blanket, line up and squat as an older man tells them they are about to become men. They are not supposed to cry out or show any signs of pain as the circumciser makes two quick and decisive slashes under the folds of the blanket. Now they must cry out, "I'm a man".
This scene is shot like a documentary and it jolts us into the movie's reality. No going back now. We are in the woods with these men and you can almost feel the pain during that first week, as each initiate is confined to his little round hut, alone with his caregiver, an older man who will see him through the worst.
This man tends the wound with traditional herbal remedies, and begins to educate the boy with new language and secret customs.
The film confronts all kinds of taboos, starting with the secrecy, but the bigger one is to come. Xolani (Nakhane Toure), the caregiver, is a young man of about 30 who does this every year, leaving his job as a storeman to initiate younger men into Xhosa manhood.
He's also gay. Kwanda (Niza Jay), his initiate, senses it quickly. Takes one to know one. Kwanda is more comfortable with his sexuality, even though much younger. He has grown up in the city; his uncle thinks he's "soft".
The initiation is supposed to cure him: he will become not just a man but a heterosexual man. Kwanda accepts initiation but knows he will remain what he is. In this place, that is dangerous.
One of the caregivers is openly aggressive. Vija (Bongile Mantsai) is a man's man: handsome, well-muscled, jocular but with an air of deep conflict.
Turns out he and Xolani have been friends since childhood; they come to this camp every year to be lovers as well. Vija may be married but he keeps a flame burning for his boyhood friend – and he doesn't like the way Xolani and Kwanda are getting on.
About this point, I thought 'wow, we haven't seen this before', but of course, we've seen something similar. The mountains, the two guys who return every year, the secret love affair – why, it's Brokeback Mountain!
Except the traditional background gives the film a fresh texture, with plenty of cultural resonance. Isn't this the country where President Jacob Zuma has declared homosexuality un-African?
In 2006 he said if a homosexual African man stood before him he would knock him out. And before I get too judgmental, it is as well to remember South Africa embraced same-sex marriage 10 years ago, well before Australia.
It must have been difficult for a gay white director to tell this story – but John Trengove is South African, careful but not too careful, and brave. He does a superb job in his debut film, especially in control of the performances.
The script, co-written with two other Africans, is sensitive and fearless – a bit like Kwanda, the kid who senses all the hypocrisy of these older guys and wants to expose it, even at great personal risk.
Trengove puts the torch to an ugly, destructive idea here, but the politics are solidly structural. It's a gripping movie on its own dramatic terms: enigmatic, visually striking, culturally sympathetic and pungently fresh.
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