As a woman, there were times while I was watching John Trengove's film, The Wound, that I was distinctly uncomfortable. It wasn't that the themes or visuals were disturbing, more that I was concerned about any woman having access to such a private ceremony in the Xhosa culture, when even the women of that tribe are not included. Ukwaluka (the traditional initiation into manhood which begins with circumcision) is clearly a male ceremony, enacted by men, for men, and about which men are forbidden to speak. Frankly, it felt voyeuristic and I wondered how the men of the ancient tribes would feel about people the world over having the opportunity to look so closely into their private rituals. It left me with many questions about who they asked for permission, and what authority they had, to make this film.
That said, this film deals with the themes of love, tradition, acceptance and honour in a touching and intelligent way, giving viewers an insight into the lives and struggles of a number of very different men who all belong to the same tribe. The 'city boy', the family man, the lover, the elders and their views about the younger generations, all are explored and offer an Australian audience the opportunity to understand tribal life and rituals that are most likely foreign to them.
It is a study in culture and how the men of the Xhosa tribe define masculinity and how they are bound by tradition to re-enact their rituals and pass on their beliefs. In Australia, gay men can marry, but in this South African culture homosexuality is absolutely taboo and even the men involved can barely articulate their feelings or needs. Xolani and Vija have a long history as intermittent lovers but this is an unspoken relationship and operates outside of the tribe's boundaries and outside of Vija's family obligations. Many of the scenes are shot in darkness, so even the audience is unaware of who exactly is doing what, this highlighting that it is so illicit that it must also be hidden from us. There is no well-lit space to explore the issue until the initiate discovers their secret.
Both literal and figurative wounds are explored in this film. The physical wound, the circumcision, is a jumping off point to explore the wound of unrequited love, the wound that a culture inflicts upon those who don't fit in, the wound of segregation and seclusion of the city boy/gay boy, and the wound inflicted by a racist white society who keeps the smartest boy in the school in the same job as a packer for years, never promoting him.
The film also explores the wound that the 'initiate', Kwanda, could potentially inflict on everyone - he wants to challenge the ancient belief system and disturb the peace - but the film asserts that the culture is stronger than his city boy fancies.The preservation of the status quo is more important to Xolani, the caregiver, than the desires for change of an initiate who refuses to accept the ways of the tribe. This is how patriarchal cultures maintain their strength, by curtailing the weak and ensuring that their people conform to tradition.
The image of Xolani on the back of the truck, sitting in the tray, an outsider everywhere he goes, heading back to be an outsider in the community in which he lives and works is haunting. The traffic noise strikingly harsh compared to the sounds of nature which permeate the intimate scenes of this film.
The Wound is a moving depiction of love and affection between two men caught between desire and expectation and leaves audiences to ponder the conflicting needs of people who must navigate their individuality within an oppressive and dominant culture.