The South African film Inxeba tells the story of three homosexual men trying to reconcile their masculinity, sexuality and love against the backdrop of ukoluka (traditional Xhosa male circumcision and initiation as a man). It has polarised public opinion and has been widely protested. The film has little to do with ukoloka itself. It is the story of Xolani (Nakhane Toure) and Vija’s (Bongile Mantsai) turbulent and difficult affair, but much of the reaction to it has centred on the setting.

Many of the film’s critics and those demanding it not to be shown, argue that it distorts and degrades African culture and breaks the sacred covenant, centuries long, of secrecy ‘on the mountain’ (during ukoluka). Its defenders argue that the film is not about initiation and does not expose anything about initiation that is not already in the public domain. Instead, it is a necessary tale that challenges tradition rather than degrades it.

Add homosexuality and a white director, and you have yourself a ticking time bomb of a movie.

Inxeba forces Xhosa traditionalism to engage with homosexuality

Whether you agree with it or not, the outrage around Inxeba is understandable – this is explored below. However, much of the outrage is directed at homosexuality. Xhosa tradition doesn’t accommodate the LGBTQIA+ community. Just like many religions, fundamentalists will be offended that a ‘sin’ can be mixed with their beliefs. As the church battles with homosexuality, Xhosa tradition does the same. What is special about Inxeba is that churches have publicly had debates about gay pastors and marriage but Xhosa tradition has kept this far away from initiation and other sacred rituals. We don’t know how to grapple with this, let alone how to do this in public. We don’t have a divine book to refer to nor do we have a city centre to gather in. Ours is a tricky and difficult task. Sexual and gender issues are inextricably tied to initiation, which is something we must address. The longer we wait, the more important films like Inxeba become.

Exposing initiation is a tug of war between the individual and the collective

Ukoluka is a collective cultural experience shared by a diversity of men. Initiation camps are highly guarded and sacred spaces. Only men who have been initiated ever witness exactly what happens during the rite of passage. Initiates form bonds with each other as they become part of a brotherhood, from the mutual experience of a life changing adventure. Initiation connects the initiate to the countless men who have come before him, men who have all sworn to protect and defend the sanctity and privacy of this experience. It is something that belongs both to the individual and the group.

While important for some, initiation is unpleasant and pointless to others. In the movie, the central initiate, Kwanda, played by Niza Jay, is a boy from the city who does not fit into, or respect, the tradition. He is mocked routinely as a soft and spoilt rich kid. Kwanda’s experience of initiation is not pleasant and he wants nothing to do with the brotherhood. Kwanda feels little responsibility towards the ritual. In fact, he probably wants to expose it for all the things about it he deems bad. Kwanda has every right to share his story. The question is: does he have any responsibility to the secrecy of the collective narrative in doing so?

This is a crucial question. In a digital age where a status or tweet can go viral, screen shots and the internet immortalising its existence, is secrecy even feasible? In the past, villages and communities were small, and social sanctions were enough to dissuade even the most disgruntled of initiates from speaking out. Today the only thing truly keeping initiations secret is the sense of responsibility to the brotherhood. This is where Inxeba feels like an intrusion.

Although not exposing any of the details, it does expose the experiences. The experience is far greater than just the narrative. The experience is the impossible attempt to resist the need to flinch and wince with the changing of every dressing. The experience is the jovial celebration of your peers’ healing, and the moment of fear just before the circumcision and the brave face you make while it is being done. If anything, these are the only things still secret about initiation. Inxeba allows everyone into these special and vulnerable moments. As with any good film, it takes the viewer, now no longer a part of any circle, on a visceral journey along with each of the characters. Because it is so wonderful, not because of its setting or what it depicts, it transcends this final frontier.

The film

While embroiled in all the debates, we sometimes forget to talk about the film itself. Inxeba is a beautiful movie. It is truly a wonderful cinematic experience that draws the viewer into every moment.

Nakhane Touré is a powerful actor who incarnates Xolani. Everything he says and does is convincing and enthralling. The internal conflicts of the character, a lover who must hide his true self and that of his beloved partner, shine through every movement of the eye. His casting and performance is nothing less than a calling – a divine intervention for all to celebrate. Vija, portrayed by Bongile Mantsai, deserves as much praise. His character, Xolani’s closeted lover, is a refreshing representation of homosexual men. He is masculine, in stature and in being, and not in a archetypal soft-effeminate representation. Bongile handles this difficult character impressively. And of course; John Trengove. Little needs to be said about his work after watching the film. It speaks more eloquently to his talent than any description ever could.

Inxeba is important. It is a wonderful movie. It is a challenging movie. It is an invasive and intrusive movie. It belongs to the individual and the group. It is a call for cultural introspection and a reflection on the practise in its context and time. This is one wound we cannot wait for time to heal.