Thursday, 22 February 2018

John Trengrove’s Highly Tactile “Inxeba”

If the primary worth of direction is to deliver, through images, a work and an experience beyond the dimensions of the script, then John Trengrove’s direction of the isiXhosa-language film Inxeba has significant merit, and is distinguished among South African films for that very reason. The writers — Malusi Bengu, Trengrove, and Thando Mgqolozana, from whose novel A Man Who is Not a Man the film was adapted — indeed supplied a deft and earnestly emotional script, but the final product is far from a mere illustration or fawning enactment; in my view, it’s a brazen, intimate, and personal film, marked with an invigorated visual imagination.

Read other review of Inxeba here.

Trengrove directs in tension with the script somewhat: Where the Xhosa writers (and actors, who surely contributed, if with nothing more than their resourcefulness and spontaneity on set) have something to say about their experiences of the Xhosa initiation camps and upbringing in Xhosa society in general, Trengrove’s priority is on the specific and universal dimensions of the central characters’ story. Though I’m not sure whether it can be called a love story, since true romantic love seems more or less absent from it to me, it has many of the same vectors of experience: illicit desire, sexual attraction, emotional dependence, repression, tenderness, contempt, rage, and the pained tensions of frustrated lives. Trengrove brings an open, forthright, and appreciative outsider’s view to the Xhosa customs he depicts, and films the central characters’ story through a prism of fully realised and keenly felt emotion. The result is a small and tightly wound world of inner and outer experience that threatens to unravel, as the story threatens the characters with the encroachment of outside forces and agents on their individual lives.

The whole film — bar the first and final few seconds — is set at an initiation camp, somewhere in the mountains in the Eastern Cape. There are elders and young boys who appear intermittently to administer their duties and to fulfill custom at the camp, but mostly it’s the initiates and their caregivers on their own, in isolation or together with the other initiates and caregivers. The story centres on Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a bright and resourceful, sensitive yet outwardly gruff factory worker from the small town of Queenstown, who serves as a caregiver at the camp; Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), an assured teenager from Johannesburg, whose father entrusts him to the care of Xolani at the camp, for fear of the boy’s “softness” (it’s suggested that Kwanda has already been romantically or at least sexually involved with other boys his age); and Vija (Bongile Mantsai), an animated, swaggering, blustery macho caregiver, whose outside life is not described except that he has a wife and newborn child.

Xolani and Vija have a secret sexual relationship, which they can fulfill annually when they see each other at the initiation camp. Yet Xolani is deeply devoted to Vija, and wishes for a more committed, broader romantic relationship with him. Vija, seemingly just as emotionally dependent on Xolani, denies it, even to himself; their secrecy and repressed feelings accumulate tensions that strain their whole lives, and the threat of an explosive and destructive fury, as well as of that pressure bursting beyond the bounds of their insular setting, grows ever more overt. The ominous spark that makes this year more tense at the camp is the presence of Kwanda, who is of a newer generation that is open about and more accepting of matters like sexuality (not to mention that he’s from Johannesburg, a veritable Sodom on the African continent). Not only is Kwanda openly queer, but he urges Xolani to be similarly open and assertive, and he gives the come-on to both Xolani and Vija at different times, to varying disastrous results.

The Xhosa writers (and actors, whose meaningful contributions warrant a second mention) use the isolated setting of a camp full of young and old men — embarking on a rite of full traditional manhood, no less — as a petri dish for the aspects and actions and effects of masculinity in society, Xhosa society in particular. It’s clear that they’ve devised characters in the script to highlight different forms of it, but each is drawn with attention and specificity, their dialogue spun with a worldly authenticity, and the themes and subjects woven deftly into the drama. It has been reported that the writers and actors were generally Xhosa men who have been through initiation themselves and wished to tell stories of their own experiences — some of them heartening, and some of them painful. I sensed in the film that ore of real-life experience that they’ve refined for the script; it doesn’t have the existential pressure of some of the most self-critical or self-exulting cinematic forms of this exercise (and that probably has to do with the fact that the director has had none of those experiences himself), but it does have an emotional weight and authority.

Trengrove, however, uses a self-contained group of virile and heedless men in another way. A film can often take on a subject matter in its realisation quite different from the one set out in the script; here, Trengrove’s direction changes focus from issues of masculinity (which are in no way obscured) to the physical and psychic experiences of close contact, of the homoerotic tactility of and proximity to other men, to which Xolani, Vija, and Kwanda find themselves inclined. Trengrove is continually interested in intimate individual experiences and perspectives, reflected in the persistent tight closeups which give little sense of the actors’ surroundings, whether natural or social, even the most immediate ones. When the camera does pull out, it’s for very wide panoramas of the yellow and green mountains, or to shakily track moving action through the woods, and even then the director’s attention is closely focused on the personal drama at hand. The most memorable aspect of most of the images in the movie is the tactile experience, which, together with a burning psychological pain, is what Trengrove seems to observe most intently in the camp. The images of skin on skin, sweat on skin, wet grass on skin, white clay on skin, rough blankets on skin, goat’s blood on skin, cold water on skin, stinging herbal remedies on skin, rough dressings on wounds, fists on flesh, and penis upon flesh take on a resonance beyond their mere place in the plot. Queerness is about what you feel, and your love, frustration, desire, and pain are expressions of it. Your body is where you live it out, and, for the moment, where the fight continues.

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