South Africa’s Oscar pick The Wound challenges both tradition and homophobia

South Africans debate whether a story about a gay Xhosa man is cultural appropriation. 

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“I just wanted people to watch the film. I was upset that my safety was now compromised,” says Niza Jay Ncoyini (pictured) about the reaction he has faced for starring in Inxeba (The Wound). The South African film depicts a homosexual love triangle taking place during the initiation ritual for men of the Xhosa tribe.

The negative reaction wasn’t just the now-predictable assault on social media. Ncoyini describes how “people who perceived themselves to be more powerful [than us]” threatened “they could have the film banned, they could have people killed”.

The film is about an initiation practised by South Africa’s Xhosa people, and involves the circumcision of young men, around the age 16 to 18, as they enter manhood. It’s a very secretive and masculine event, and a lot of the opposition appears to stem from the belief that Xhosa tradition should not be broadcast to the wider world. Among those critical of the film was the AmaXhosa king, Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu, who said the breach of secrecy would “provoke the wrath of ancestors”.

Some protests linked the film to wider questions of colonialism. One protest that tried to get the film banned called itself The Wound Must Fall, off the back of the protest movement which originated in South Africa against the statue of a colonialist, Rhodes Must Fall. The campaign described itself as protecting Xhosa culture from exploitation by outsiders (the film’s director is white). It claimed its opposition is based on the idea African stories and culture being appropriated for art house films.

Ncoyini shares a lot with Kwanda, the character he plays in the film who goes to the mountain. Both are young gay Xhosa men though Ncoyini is originally from the Eastern Cape, where the Xhosa tribe originates and initiation rituals are carried out, before he moved to the city. However, Ncoyini  made the decision not to undergo the initiation. For him, the film became a way for him to go to the mountain.

He rejects the argument of cultural appropriation, depicting it as an attempt to monopolise Xhosa stories. “Not doing things the traditional way doesn't make us any less Xhosa. I’m 100 per cent still Xhosa,” he says. “We’re not doing away with tradition, this is just one story. Maybe, even my children, I’d let them go through it.”

He is also clear that the criticism was not merely cultural. “This was a cover for homophobic attacks,” he says. “The impulse to be threatening or violent, that [opposition] definitely came from homophobic places and patriarchal places.” The threats to the makers of the film were taken so seriously that Ncoyini was supported by a legal team. 

Yet reaction has changed as the film garners success. It picked up 14 international awards including best first feature at the BFI London Film Festival. This culminated in the film being put forward as South Africa’s entry for the best foreign language film at the Oscars. It is tipped to make the final Oscar nomination list, which cuts 92 entrants down to a handful.

To be eligible for this the film had to have had a run in its home country. It showed for a week in two cinemas, selling out shows and generating far more positive than negative reaction.

This change in reaction is, in part, due to a greater understanding that the film is not an attack on Xhosa culture. “People formed reactions and opinions from trailers and reviews without seeing it,” Ncoyini explains.

“So many people viewed this film as the end of Xhosa culture, of Xhosa solidarity and it's absolutely not, this is just the telling of one experience of going to the mountain [where the initiation ritual takes place].”

Yet with success and acclaim, calls for the film to be banned have waned. The Xhosa king has denied ever calling for the film to be banned – only requesting the royal house be given an opportunity to be educated on it with a special screening prior to its release.

The Wound is due for release in the UK in March 2018