Saturday, 9 September 2017

How Are You Prepared for “Inxeba: The Wound”?

One of the sustained subjects on controversy I’ve observed on South African social media this year is the announcement of and marketing for the new isiXhosa-language film The Wound Inxeba, directed by first-time director John Trengrove and adapted from the novel A Man Who is Not a Man by Thando Mgqolozana. Responses to the trailer, released in the first half of the year, are divided between enthusiasm and outrage, and the topics of discussion on it cover a few different points of interest.

Firstly, and most prominently, is the topic of the film’s setting and overt subjects. The film is set almost entirely at the rural location of the traditional Xhosa practice of initiation, known as ulwaluko, and depicts certain experiences of the young men who undergo it. Ulwaluko is a sacred rite in its Xhosa heritage and the specific details of the process are meant to be secret to everyone except those who have undergone it (which is supposed to be all AmaXhosa men who have come of age); no AmaXhosa women ever find these details out, and certainly no outsiders are supposed to know them. Secondly, the marketing has revealed that the story of the film is told from the perspective of a homosexual man, and that homosexual experience and desire is incorporated into the film’s narrative. People defending the film against attacks and criticism online have said that commentators should first see the film before presuming its content, but the trailer I saw gives the distinct impression that the emotional and psychological effects of the experience of ulwaluko, same-sex attraction in the context of it, as well as varied reactions to that attraction, will be direct subjects of the film.

Perhaps the most prominent negative reaction to the trailer was given by the AmaXhosa king, Mpendulo Zwelonke Sigcawu, who, according to a report in the Times, planned “to lodge a complaint to the Film and Publication Board and National Heritage Council” on the grounds that the film is “‘too graphic’”. The king is reported as saying,

“The movie made everything public, even the very sensitive and graphic things. It is insulting to the tradition because it stripped the tradition of its secrecy and sacredness. This will provoke the wrath of ancestors. Attacking and insulting this custom is an attack to our ancestors.”

The Contralesa (Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa) youth wing chairperson, Prince Ntsindiso Mdunyelwa, also told the Times “he would mobilise society to call for a ban on any broadcasting of content related to traditional circumcision.” People have also declared on social media that they will stage protests of screenings of the film outside theatres.

The lead actor in the film, Nakhane Touré, also reported severely homophobic backlash in people’s responses in an interview with Carl Collison of the Mail & Guardian, that paper’s designated “Rainbow Fellow” who covers matters relating to queer issues and stories. Touré said that many straight men claimed that it would be impossible for any kinds of homosexual activity to take place at the initiation schools (where ulwaluko is carried out), but that “[he knows] it does, because it happened to [him]”. He says the point of the film was to start a dialogue on this specific matter:

“The film is about same-sex desire. And this desire is set in a space that doesn’t see it at all, a space that finds it deplorable. But it’s a space where men are allowed to be vulnerable. You put your life and your penis, literally, in the hands of other men. I would never police someone’s feelings, though. People have the right to their anger. But let’s have a mature conversation about it. The dialogue has already started. It’s just that some of it is very violent. …
The great thing about art and creativity is that, if you’re honest about your life and experiences, someone out there will relate to it. So a queer person might look at this film and say, ‘Huh, I’m not crazy,’ because the world is telling us we’re crazy all the time – and we believe it. … I was telling a friend of mine, who is also an artist, recently, ‘Commit to your ideas.’ There is always someone who is going to hate them. And just because that person hates it doesn’t mean you’re wrong. It’s just that person’s taste. I have called a certain elder in our family and told them that, if you feel it’s your duty to try and get the film banned, then that’s your duty. I won’t take it personally. We can fight. But I don’t want us to not talk. Our views might not be the same, but let’s be mature about it.”

In another report by the Times, the filmmakers have been responding to backlashes in the press. It reports that Cait Pansegrouw, a producer on the film, said that “critics who were attempting to shut down the film, mostly because of the use of Xhosa culture in the film were in the minority and ‘do not represent the “entire Xhosa nation” as they claim.’” A co-writer, Malusi Bengu, asked, “Where are the Xhosa cries when young boys die? Where is the passion and outrage when young boys are butchered for money by chance-takers?” Touré is quoted here as well, in a similarly outraged line of response:

“I speak as a Xhosa man who has been to initiation, and who is proud to have done so, when I say that no secrets are revealed. What is being revealed instead, is a violent homophobia. Those issuing threats are nowhere to be seen when Xhosa initiates are sexually assaulted during initiation. Where are you madoda [men] when babies are raped in our communities? Where is your anger when women are raped and murdered? The answer is nowhere. Instead, you choose to attack an important and insightful film that I do not for a single moment regret being part of.”

Another producer, Batana Vundla, is is reported as saying that the film does not reveal any of the ceremony’s secrets:

“There are a number of genuinely concerned Xhosa South Africans who are perturbed at the thought that the secret tradition of ulwaluko has been cast open for the whole world to see. Rest assured, that has not happened. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth … If anything, through the constructive dialogue brought about by the film, initiation as a traditional practice and its role in society has been strengthened by Inxeba. I want to stress that no secrets were revealed.”

A second-year BA student at the University of the Witwatersrand named Asandiswa Jali wrote a piece called “Banning of The Wound (Inxeba) Movie” for the site XhosaCulture. She brings up the third major criticism of the film, specifically that the director and some of the producers are white, while the issues the film’s narrative brings up are specifically Xhosa issues. She sets the context for her criticism of the film being made with a historical view:

“Due to the historical events that occurred in Africa as a whole, which have led to Africans being viewed as savages and ‘uncivilised’, white people have found it appropriate to tell the stories of Africans, with some building their careers from our stories.”

She continues with the argument that Inxeba: The Wound is merely another instance of exploitation by white directors and producers of black people’s problems, from which they benefit. She claims that Trengrove is not entitled to speak about the problems faced by black people as he is not a part of that community, and asks whether any of the money made by the movie will go towards the isiXhosa-speaking people, the families of victims of botched circumcisions, the many isiXhosa-speaking students who are excluded financially from tertiary education students, or “the white producer [sic] and director of the movie with the ‘leftovers’ going to the actors involved”.

She asserts that problems such as intolerance for homosexuals need to be discussed and dealt with, but also that the customs of the AmaXhosa people must be respected, and that the sacred parts of ulwaluko must remain sacred and secret. She concludes her polemic with her recommendations:

“The movie should be banned everywhere, and, lastly, white people need to start minding their own business and and stop telling our stories. It is also quite important that the Xhosa tribe holds conversations with the LGBTIQ community to make sure the tradition of ulwaluko does not exclude and discriminate them. Releasing a movie that will only be seen by the privileged will not stop the faults of this tradition as it occurs in villages in South Africa not Berlin. [The film was released at that city’s prestigious annual film festival.] The Xhosa speaking people in the movie should be holding these conversations in villages where these problems are. Ulwaluko is a sacred process and should be treated with respect.”

In a piece published in the Mail & Guardian in July, the actor Niza Jay, who appears in the film, also explores the idea of the film as one about AmaXhosa men told by people who were not all from a Xhosa background and heritage themselves — as well as a number of other issues regarding his own identity as a queer and un-initiated Xhosa men, and how that relates to his place in the discussion — but ultimately affirms the film’s value and the contribution it makes to an important discussion.

You can read the responses and reviews of those who have seen the films in these links I include here, at the sites Rotten Tomatoes, the City Press, and IMDb.

The question here is how to approach the film, in light of all the critical discussion of it, which I hope I’ve adequately summed up and represented here. What are your thoughts on what a filmmaker may and may not tell or show in their work? Do you intend to see the film when it is released in theatres? Why or why not?

For now, I can offer my own cursory and personal thoughts on how to approach it.

Firstly, the calls of people like the AmaXhosa king and the BA student to ban the film are loathsome and absurd. There is a litany of moral and ethical arguments against the banning of films, including the insult it would be to the many fighters in the struggle against apartheid who resisted the nationalist government’s policies of censoring and banning whatever works they didn’t like. Quite simply (if impassively and abstractly), banning a movie is prohibited by the Constitution, and so there exists no mechanism by which it could be done. But the reason it’s prohibited is that ours is not a society that bans the telling of stories, the fostering of discussion, and the kindling of progressive causes, even if it’s not to the taste of a large number of South African moviegoers. As many people as would like to are entirely free to protest and boycott the film, criticise it publicly (as some of the people quoted above have), and urge others to do the same; they are not free to prevent its release or prevent others from seeing it.

But, while we have the legal right to see the film, would it be morally or ethically permissible for us to do so? I would find the matter particularly tricky in light of the fact (of which I was aware before the film was made) that there are secret parts of the initiation ceremony held sacred in the Xhosa traditions and customs; but, according to people who contributed to or have seen Inxeba, the matter is far simpler, as no secrets are disclosed and no sacred part of the ritual is in any way debased by the film.

The question of homosexual depictions in the film is both a simple and a stark one. If you object to it, you’d probably do best to stay away. If you don’t, it’s unlikely to repel you when you see the film.

The question of the white filmmakers is far less simple. It’s true that the director and some of the film’s producers are white (I quoted above from Batana Vundla, a black producer on the film), but the screenplay was adapted by black writers from a black novelist’s material, and the actors (some of whom, as shown above, clearly are in the position to comment on the film’s subjects) are black as well. The bitter view of colonialism today is justifiable (and, I may add, shared by me), and commentators have the right to object to certain individuals doing certain things with certain materials. But, in my view, the idea of artistic authority and creative primacy of the director in cinema — in short, the policy of the auteurs, or “the auteur theory” as it’s popularly called in English — while confirmed by my whole experience of the cinema, is not an idea or way of thinking or seeing that has taken much root here in South Africa (as I have suggested often on this blog). Quite often, South African films are made with the intention of fostering discussion and “starting a dialogue” (which is obviously the case with Inxeba as well), which generally spells the end to artistic inspiration and motivation for a film. When filmmakers aim to tick boxes of talking points, and mention the required ideas and antitheses in the dialogue, they tend to lose sight of the primary cinematic concerns, like visual invention, personal expression, and the evocation of unique thoughts, feelings, and experiences. A white director is as likely to subordinate art and wonder to extemporising as any black director, and neither of them would be at any greater a compromise of their moral or artistic integrity. (And poor communities depicted in issue-oriented films are in no better position to profit from the film if it were made by a black director than a white one.)

In any case, John Trengrove has not stolen or exploited a black story; he was appointed to direct it from an adaptation belonging to a black novelist. The story itself and the translation of it to the screen belongs to isiXhosa-speaking storytellers, and the fact that a director often does not hold artistic priority on South African productions means that it hasn’t been handed over to a white director. Black people came up with the story, and black people organised and came together with other people to tell it. (Jali is also wrong in thinking that the director and producers take the bulk of the income and hand scraps of it over to the black actors; often the actors’ fees are the highest on a film production, and on most South African movies there’s never any profit to be claimed by backroom executives. Rights and fees had to be paid to the Xhosa novelist and writers of the film right at the beginning of pre-production, before any producers could begin collecting paychecks.) The actual, pervasive problem in South African (not only its film industry) is that black people have been denied priority of place in discussion for so long, and the appointment of white directors to tell black stories can sometimes appear to be a continuation of former oppressions. A black director is entirely free today to make the same movies white directors are making, and, fortunately, there is no sign that black directors are at any disadvantage when it comes to obtaining funding (I have no insights as to why Trengrove, specifically, was appointed for this project). The main problem is one I’ve already highlighted (here and here), which is that no filmmaker is free from state involvement in their work.

It remains to be seen whether Trengrove, as a white director, has done an adequately sensitive, perceptive, and sincere job in making this movie — I’ll be able to report on that next year, when I’ve seen it — and I don’t make any moves here to defend him specifically as the director of Inxeba.

Hopefully, however, some time soon, we will see the emergence of a director as a strong artistic presence in their own cinematic productions in this country. But even then, to my mind, it would not be outright objectionable for a white director to make a movie telling a black person’s story, so long as the director doesn’t pretend that they’re telling it from any perspective other than their own (and I have recently detailed a full criticism on a white director who did not do that job properly, in my review of Krotoa). Half of movies (and novel-writing, for that matter) is filming (or writing) what you know; the other half is learning about what you don’t, and then filming (or writing) that. A white director could take a full and sympathetic view of a black life with a probing curiosity, and, with the guidance of wise colleagues such as producers and writers who would aid the director’s knowledge and understanding, could land upon something wondrous in artistic creation.

Inxeba: The Wound is opening next Friday, 15 September, for a week-long run in local theatres, in order to qualify as a nominee at next year’s Oscars. Its proper theatrical release will be next February.

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