In John Trengove’s debut feature, The Wound, passage into manhood is steeped in violence both physical and psychological. The film investigates the Xhosa practice of ukwaluka, a ritual endurance test in which young men on the cusp of adulthood undergo circumcision (during which they’re implored to shout “I’m a man!” as an elder tribesman slices their genitals), fasting, and weeks of isolation from their families. But despite the specificity of this subject matter, the film’s themes of socialized masculinity and intolerance of non-conformity resonate far outside of this South African community.
The Wound opens on Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a lonely young factory worker traveling from his home in the city to the mountains where the ritual takes place to serve as a caregiver for this year’s charges. He’s asked to take a firm hand with Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), a “soft” boy from Johannesburg whose defiance of received norms is interpreted as effete elitism by the traditionalist elders. For the closeted Xolani, participating in the ukwaluka ritual offers a chance to resume his largely one-sided romance with the swaggering Vija (Bongile Mantsai), who resists Xolani’s entreaties to leave his wife and child behind and run away with him. As Kwanda begins to suspect Xolani and Vija’s relationship, the atmosphere among the three men grows increasingly tense.
Though the film settles into a familiar coming-of-age trajectory, it’s always enlivened by Trengove’s intimate, inquiring eye. The filmmaker’s approach is too empathetic and character-oriented to be described as anthropological, but he’s nevertheless attuned to the messages encoded in group behavior, particularly the methods by which groups police their members’ conduct by means as subtle as jokes and body language. While resisting any overt judgment on the circumcision ritual, which has been the subject of heated debate in South Africa, the film uses ukwaluka as a lens through which to view the intergenerational transfer of traditional masculine norms.
The Xhosa virulently reject homosexuality, overt expressions of emotion, and anything perceived as weakness. For those like Xolani and Kwanda who are alienated from their fellow tribesmen by their non-conforming behavior, respect can be earned back only through an act of violence, such as Kwanda’s brutal slaughter of a goat. It’s fitting, then, that the film concludes with a sudden burst of violence that metaphorically restores Xolani to the tribal fold while demonstrating that the shackles of tradition are often impossible to break. Ultimately, The Wound suggests that in societies that enforce strict gender norms, the passage into manhood is a scar that never fully heals.