Tribal coming-of-age initiation ritual for the Xhosa men take the form of an annual meeting, away from the cities, amidst the mountains of the Eastern Cape. John Trengove’s compelling Oscar nominated film depicts the ancient rituals outside the contemporaneity of city life to show the perceived arrival of manhood for a group of tribal brethren. Relationships and expectations crash as prejudices and misapprehensions abide within the isolated community – a male-only world where rules and traditions conflict with modern desires.

Factory worker Xolani (Nakhane Touré) returns to the mountains of his Xhosa tribe. Each year the male members of the tribe meet, overseen by their distinguished elders, to ensure that the boys who attend are initiated into manhood by defined rituals covering days of residence, commencing with painful penile alteration that begins the process of making a boy into a true tribal member, embracing ancient traditions and formalities that are unaffected by modern life and aspirations. Xolani is given the role of caregiver, that of taking one of the initiates into his care and guiding him through the painful process. His initiate Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini) is from a rich Johannesburg background, to be initiated because of his father’s demand to toughen the boy in the ancient tribal traditional ways. A friend of the family, his father believes him to be a weakling and not a real man. “They trust me to take you into manhood,” Xolani assures his protege, something he has learned from his close friend and fellow caregiver Vija (Bongile Mantsai). Outside of the ceremonial necessities Xolani and Vija continue their own private relationship together, something that would be considered taboo by any tribal laws, especially as Vija is married. Kwanda is an outsider – a stroppy, privileged teen, softened by city life, who outright refuses to join the group activities. Whilst he is mocked and derided by the other initiates because of his bourgeois background, he too has desires deemed unacceptable in Xhosa law.

It was like this for all of us. It is how it is done.” The Wound reveals this in its depiction of tradition in the face of modern life and culture. This is an all male environment with all male participants, to the extent that the film only shows women in a single shot when the men emerge from their initiation. The tribal needs are dictated by the elders, who warn of escaping from the past while noting that the white man is the devil to their existence and cause. This is all set against the stunning mountain countryside, set away from any urban environment, despite the power station in the background with the electric pylons skirting the landscape, a reminder that technology constantly invades the natural environment. But within this setting lies the cultural background, where we begin to understand the characters’ own situations; the conflict between the modern and the traditional, the balance between needs and desires. These desires in this environment are centred on sexuality as the initiation itself involves genital mutilation creating manhood scars, the wound a representation of the tribe’s origins and strength, it’s a long process – “when it hurts it means it’s working”. The fact that the caregivers underwent this ritual ensures not only a transition to manhood but also a bonding within the group between the generations. And this is a claustrophobic group that denies sexual encounters between the tribe members as it embraces heterosexuality in its ethos. When Xolani and Vija are spotted by the spoilt Kwanda, lying in a naked embrace, he declares, “Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me,” conveying his own fears of retribution as well as revealing his own desires. 

The Wound is a tightly filmed and perfectly portrayed glimpse into an unknown world of tribal mores during male initiation, combined with personal drama. Set in a beautiful landscape where the waterfall that centres the surroundings marks the tumbling revelations of the characters’ background, this is a drama that raises issues about masculinity, sexuality and expectations in a world seeking to retain an important relationship with the past within the present. Also included on the DVD is an interview with the director John Trengove and his short film The Goat which also shows aspects of tribal life and tradition. Thoroughly recommended viewing.