Divisive South African coming-of-age film eyes Oscars; its stars get death threats

By: 
AFP
Source: 
AFP

A coming-of-age film which explores the taboos around gay love and sex has won plaudits and awards abroad, and is now in the running for an Oscar.

But back home in South Africa, the movie is under fire for lifting the veil on secret initiation rites practised by one of the country's largest ethnic groups.

The trailer alone led to its stars receiving death threats, and opponents have fought to stop it from being screened in local cinemas.

"The Wound" delves into the world of ritual initiations in the country's Xhosa community, following the experiences of an initiate and two older men who all experience same-sex attraction.

Acclaimed by critics, the film was last week short-listed for the "best foreign language film" category for the Academy Awards, the winners of which will be announced in Hollywood in March.

But the boost to its international profile has enraged many in the Xhosa community which the drama attempts to portray.

"It's a daring film, it's a brave film. All of us took a bold decision," said actor Niza Jay, 22. 

"This story had to be told. The kind of Xhosa characters depicted in the film, they exist -- it's people I know."

Jay plays Kwanda, a young gay man from Johannesburg whose father dispatches him to the mountains of the Eastern Cape to take part in the "Ulwaluko" -- the Xhosa initiation into manhood. 

'Not simply a gay love story'

While there he meets Xolani (Nakhane Toure), a quiet, closeted gay man who is charged with looking after him.

The plot twists when Kwanda discovers not just Xolani's orientation but that he has a secret sexual relationship with a senior initiation leader who is a violent alcoholic -- and a married father.

"It's not simply this gay love story set in the mountain," Jay told AFP in a Johannesburg cafe, wearing hair extensions and high-heels.

"It's an exploration of way more than just the ritual -- or gayness -- it's an exploration of respectability politics, seniority, manhood, masculinity."

The film also depicts the circumcision process and the often basic after-care given to initiates.

"The Ulwaluko is a very sacred and very important ritual for Xhosa people, my people. It's an environment where you learn your place among men and within your culture," said Jay, who is himself Xhosa -- like Nelson Mandela.

Leading figures in the Xhosa community are careful not to criticise the gay storyline.

Rather, they are incensed that details of the Ulwaluko are revealed, as only initiates are entitled to know them.

"The ritual should not be on screen, it's a secret. If our kids see this they won't want to go to the mountains, but it's our traditions," said Nkosazana Bam, a member of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa.

"Women, who raise boys by themselves, they could get scared to send them.

"It must stop and it must not be screened in South Africa. It must been banned totally, they don't understand the importance of the ritual."

Bam added that she had been contacted by many Xhosa people angry after seeing the trailer.

- 'Exploiting our culture'? -

Among them was Kamvalethu Spelman, a student at Johannesburg's Wits University, who organised "The Wound must fall" movement against the film.

"They kill our culture, the legacy that we have," said Spelman, 21. 

"Even if we're poor, or black people, or we're living in the rural areas, we need to be respected.

"They say we are being homophobic but it's a lie, they just want to make money by exploiting our culture."

The fact that the film's director John Trengrove is white opened another line of criticism in a country still wracked by racial tensions 23 years after the end of apartheid.

Jay said that everyone involved in the production believed in the importance of the story.

"We were all very protective, firstly of the culture and the tradition, protective of ourselves and the dignity of the Xhosa people," he said.

"The Wound" has been screened at a string of movie gatherings, including the Sundance and Berlin film festivals, and won 14 awards.

The film is due make its full-screening debut in South Africa in February, defying several attempts to have it banned.

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