Ever more generously represented on the festival circuit, the coming-of-age drama has developed as clearly inscribed a template as any genre in the contemporary filmmaker’s playbook — growing up, after all, is only surprising to those who haven’t yet done it. So it’s to the credit of “The Wound,” a stark, stirring variation on the form from a little-filmed corner of South Africa, that it should prompt at least one outright gasp as it details the fallout of an age-old initiation ritual for adolescent boys in the rural Xhosa community. It’s not the boys, however, whose growth is of primary interest in John Trengove’s tough-minded, sharply shot debut; rather, it’s their nominally adult mentors who are shown to be wrestling most nervously with still-inchoate masculinity, as personal and sexual insecurities come violently to the surface. Universally identifiable but rooted in fascinating indigenous tradition, “The Wound” should bleed deeply into the international festival circuit — particularly its LGBT division — following appointments at Sundance and Berlin.
No prizes for guessing that “The Wound” alludes to more than one injury — whether physical or psychological — in its title, though it gets to its most vivid literal interpretation straight away. Ukwaluka, a lengthy, tribally rooted rite of passage for male Xhosa teens, begins with their ritual circumcision in the wilderness, and continues through the weeks that the resulting wound takes to heal, with the boys sequestered from society until their manhood is thus proven. Prominently and somewhat romantically described by Nelson Mandela in his autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” — thus breaking the ritual’s traditional vow of secrecy — it has become a hot-button issue in its home country, with many questioning its medical safety. Unlike Ousmane Sembène’s searing “Moolaadé,” which opened international viewers’ eyes to the controversial ritual of female circumcision on far younger children, “The Wound” isn’t overly concerned with censure as it attentively documents the ins and outs of ukwaluka.
For Xolani (Nakhane Touré), a 30-ish factory worker in the uninspiring Eastern Cape drive-through of Queenstown, ukwaluka hasn’t set him up for the “straighter, taller, firmer” adulthood described by Mandela. A lonely, closeted homosexual, he mourns the squandered opportunities of his education; the social high point of his year, meanwhile, is an annual return to the site of his initiation, where he administers to new candidates as a khaukatha, or mentor. There, his annual objective is to renew sexual relations with childhood friend and fellow khaukatha Vija (Bongile Mantsai), a married father of three who invests more than Xolani in the tribal rhetoric of traditional masculinity. Xolani’s attitude to his young charges is indifferent, though his routine is upset when he’s assigned to Kwanda (Niza Jay Ncoyini), an assertive, semi-westernized teen from the plush suburbs of Johannesburg, forced into ukwaluka by his wealthy tribesman-made-good father, who deems his son “too soft.” City boy Kwanda is more spiky than soft — he outrages the tribal elders by scornfully questioning the ritual at every turn — but it doesn’t take Xolani long to identify him as nascently gay.
In the patly sentimental version of “The Wound,” this would be a point of bonding, as man and boy help each other through their shared difference. Trengove’s film is harsher and more complicated than that, sensitive to the hard taboo that homosexuality remains in black South African culture — “The Wound’s” sexually frank depiction of which marks it as something of a milestone in the country’s cinema. Xolani and Kwanda’s mutual recognition stokes hostile fear rather than friendship, violently triangulated with Vija’s bullying tactics. Trengove’s script, co-written with Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu, is occasionally too on the nose in identifying the tensions in this scenario (“You want me to stand up and be a man, but you can’t do it yourself!”), but is both sensitively nuanced in its portrait of an outmoded tribal culture coming apart at the seams. Returning sons are chastised for “f—king off to the city,” yet masculinity is still measured in terms of material success: As the boys compare their healing circumcision scars, one is even praised for his “Mercedes-Benz cut.”
“The Wound” is rich in such small, observational details. Trengove, a white filmmaker, takes a reserved but not entirely objective anthropological approach to his exactingly researched subject, co-opting Kwanda’s culturally conflicted perspective as a relative outsider to a world that wouldn’t welcome him for who he is. If the film doesn’t wholly sympathize with his aggressive contempt for tradition, Xolani’s disingenuous compliance is hardly shown to be preferable — particularly as the film’s moral quandaries turn ever more ugly and extreme.
Cinematographer Paul Özgür’s widescreen lens negotiates a tricky balance of representation, lingering over the unfamiliar symbols and textures of Xhosa tradition — ghostly body paint applied to young black skin, the stark white and red lines of their ceremonial loincloths, the incongruous interruption of Kwanda’s nose piercing amid his traditional garb — without exoticizing them for art’s sake. Still, this is a film of many indelible images, not all of them unusual: One exquisitely lit scene sees Xolani and Vija roughly horsing around in the yellowed, waving grass of the Eastern Cape veld, a rural tableau rudely invaded by the vast steel skeletons of electricity pylons. In “The Wound,” modernity and tradition each yield scars of their own.