There some films at a festival that don’t necessarily catch the initial spotlight of the event, but shine in their own right and become noticed and talked about. INXEBA is one of those films, as it exploded with its African premiere into the Durban International Film Festival on Friday night, having played in numerous festivals around the world, including Sundance, earlier this year.
Xolani and Vija are the caregivers in traditional circumcision ceremonies in South Africa – each year they watch over and guide the young initiates into manhood. Xolani is asked by a family friend to be the caregiver for his son, Kwanda, because he has been behaving strangely at home in the city. However, Xolani has a secret as to why he attends the ceremony every year: his feelings for Vija go beyond that of a boyhood friendship. Secretly, the men meet for sexual liaisons each year during this time out in the wilderness, although Vija is married with children. When Kwanda’s sexuality comes into question, Xolani is faced with difficult choices that threaten to upset this sacred ritual of manhood.
INXEBA has a particular relevance in Africa, and will receive a different response on the continent
With a subject such as circumcision, the film is naturally going to be controversial in some aspects. Not only the health-related issues of the process, which has many detractors in today’s world; but also in the sensitivity of the traditional customs. The details of the ceremony are often seen as highly secretive, not talked about – belonging only to those who are involved. The portrayal of the ceremony, therefore, is immediately a source of debate, as to whether the film should have shown it so visibly. As well as that, and in this way, INXEBA has a particular relevance in Africa, and will receive a different response on the continent, compared to other audiences around the world. That is not to say that there will be any confusion in cultural translation; the controversy lies in the perception of this ceremony and what it might mean to some communities. The film is ably constructed as a love story which can be viewed through its universal themes, despite the importance and complexity of the setting in which it takes place.
This love story is also about gay identity in the traditional world, something which is not tolerated in many African cultures, even outlawed in some African countries (although not in South Africa, it must be noted). This adds an extra layer of controversy to the picture. There is an irony to these two gay characters leading boys into manhood, while they are not following the practices of a stereotypical, traditional man. Xolani and Vija are respected for their roles as caregivers and leaders in this masculine setting. As well as that, we as the audience begin to care for Xolani, in particular, and the plight in which he finds himself. Thus, the film asks us what it means to be a man – unpacking the stereotype, and suggesting that sexuality does not define manhood. The shocking ending will certainly create discussion around where this ultimately all leads.
Nakhane Toure is subtly coming undone throughout; his delicate, restrained expressions brimming with something broken just below the surface
INXEBA is a brave and powerful film. The first sex scene is blunt, raw and jarring – the filmmakers showing immediately where this is going; audiences are under no subtle illusions. The performance between the two leads is both intricate and intimate, set in a situation where the stereotypical view of masculinity is key to what is taking place. This makes the connection between the two men even more engaging, especially as the young Kwanda, almost unknowingly, begins to dig into the cracks that exist between them. The atmosphere is tense and unsettling: the constant hand-held camera, nothing is static and grounded; the bleak isolation in the rural setting, leaving the characters nowhere to escape; the sparse script, highlighting all that is unsaid. What stands out is the performances of all the actors, especially Nakhane Toure who is subtly coming undone throughout; his delicate, restrained expressions brimming with something broken just below the surface. It is often heart-breaking to witness his pain and constant need to protect Vija. Indeed, the crafting of the story and its portrayal of these characters is skilfully formed.
It is not surprising that INXEBA is in consideration for the South African entry to the Academy Awards next year. Although the subject matter can be critiqued – and if nothing else, will generate a dialogue on many levels – the filmmaking is undeniably effective in telling a difficult and culturally-sensitive story.