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Eli Fine

The group circumcision scene that comes early in the barely-an-hour-and-a-half runtime of “The Wound” serves almost as the film’s mission statement: it promises to remain unapologetic in its portrayal of a certain reality, yet will refrain from sensationalism. The scene is minimalist yet brutal. The South African equivalent of a mohel moves from teen boy to teen boy, in a ritual known as Ukwaluka, ridding them of their foreskins by way of a sharp metal instrument, and barking, “You are a man! Say it!” Each of them responds, “I am a man!”

I think that while obvious, it would be wise for me to note the following: this review is being written from the perspective of someone who has had no prior exposure to – indeed, no prior knowledge of – Ukwaluka. One of the things that makes “The Wound” special is that a Westerner like myself can watch it, its world completely foreign to him, and engage fully with the film on an emotional level. The film makes no attempt to explain its culture to its Western audience, it wastes not a moment on exposition. It drops the viewer into a subculture’s subculture, proving, in so doing, that most every human story – no matter how familiar or not – has the potential to translate across cultures if told with true emotional honesty. Having seen the film twice now, I can hardly lay claim to a full understanding – or any understanding, reall ...

The group circumcision scene that comes early in the barely-an-hour-and-a-half runtime of “The Wound” serves almost as the film’s mission statement: it promises to remain unapologetic in its portrayal of a certain reality, yet will refrain from sensationalism. The scene is minimalist yet brutal. The South African equivalent of a mohel moves from teen boy to teen boy, in a ritual known as Ukwaluka, ridding them of their foreskins by way of a sharp metal instrument, and barking, “You are a man! Say it!” Each of them responds, “I am a man!”

I think that while obvious, it would be wise for me to note the following: this review is being written from the perspective of someone who has had no prior exposure to – indeed, no prior knowledge of – Ukwaluka. One of the things that makes “The Wound” special is that a Westerner like myself can watch it, its world completely foreign to him, and engage fully with the film on an emotional level. The film makes no attempt to explain its culture to its Western audience, it wastes not a moment on exposition. It drops the viewer into a subculture’s subculture, proving, in so doing, that most every human story – no matter how familiar or not – has the potential to translate across cultures if told with true emotional honesty. Having seen the film twice now, I can hardly lay claim to a full understanding – or any understanding, really – of the practices it depicts. I’m writing about it anyway, because the story it tells, and the film itself, is powerful no matter how knowledgeable the viewer is of South African manhood initiation ceremonies. However, in writing about the characters and aesthetic of “The Wound,” there’s a decent chance that I mischaracterize some element of the customs on display. But to worry too much about such things would be to miss the deeply humanist point of the movie.

The film’s protagonist is Xolani – X for short. He’s played, by first-time actor Nakhane Touré, with the naturalism of a documentary subject. X is a closeted gay man working a depressing factory job, who once a year goes up into the mountains to act as one of many “caregivers” to the Ukwaluka initiates. This particular year, he’s put in charge of caring for a cocky city boy named Kwanda (Niza Jay). In one of the film’s first scenes, Kwanda’s father tells X not to go easy on his kid, adding that “lately my son has been bringing rich boys home and locking themselves in his room.”

Soon after the circumcision sequence, a new caregiver arrives. His name is Vija (Bongile Mantsai), and we quickly gather that he and X have a history together. In a brilliantly shot, remarkably frank, wordless sex scene, we get the first hint of a power imbalance in their relationship. As the film develops, we begin to suspect Vija of emotional, if not physical, abuse toward Xolani.

Meanwhile, X treats Kwanda’s “wound.” He applies herbs that “sting like a motherfucker” and instructs Kwanda to stay in his little tent for days, recuperating, with drinking and sleeping forbidden. Importantly, X tells Kwanda that “when you go home, you don’t speak of what happened here.” This, among other mildly sinister happenings on the mountain, bring to mind ugly hazing and religious rituals that play upon the innocence and powerlessness of their subjects. While “The Wound” is not about the morality and/or dangers of the initiation ceremony, it conveys some level of distaste for the tradition as presented. It’s not a film afraid of challenging the customs it presents.

Kwanda, himself closeted, immediately guesses X’s secret. He notices X sneaking off with Vija, and the unpleasant, demeaning way Vija acts toward X in public. Acting as something of an audience stand in, Kwanda spends much of the film imploring X to leave Vija for good.

“The Wound” has more on its mind if you can believe it, than self-acceptance, power dynamics, and themes of manhood. Running through the film is a subtle commentary on race and class in South Africa. The other initiates dislike Kwanda for his higher stature, accusing him of “[thinking] he’s white” and pestering him about what type of phone he has (“iPhone,” he says. “Why not BlackBerry?” responds the initiate.) One of the unexplained Ukwaluka customs involves the initiates being covered in white powder for the duration of their stay on the mountain, possibly implying some deeply unfortunate connection between whiteness and manhood.

It is, appropriately, a pointedly male movie: if I’m recalling correctly, no woman makes an appearance in the film. Women are discussed, mind you – Vija is married, his wife about to birth child number three; the initiates discuss which local girls they plan to “start with” once they return home as men; the caretakers complain about spending so much time “looking at dicks,” one saying that he’s looking forward to “warm vagina” when he gets back home. This is a movie about manhood and machismo, about what makes a man a man. Many of these characters clearly think manhood is tied to having sex with women, with the topic of homosexuality coming up twice only to be fiercely derided by all present. X is understandably confused as to where he falls on the spectrum of manhood.

Touré, as Xolani, holds the film together masterfully. Not a moment is overplayed nor feels unnatural, and he’s incredibly affecting as this quiet, secretive, lonely soul. The success of his performance also speaks to the film’s restrained screenplay and direction, with silent sequences conveying as much about their characters as dialogue-heavy ones. Director John Trengove uses limited resources to great effect, maintaining a distinct awareness of spatial geography and his characters’ in-frame relation to one another both in cramped interiors and wide-open exteriors. The cinematography is similarly effective, with a reliance on natural light to help tell the story; gorgeous outdoor scenes play out during various stages of sundown and sunrise.

The most obvious point of comparison for “The Wound,” and one that has already been made online, is to last year’s “Moonlight.” But the parallels between the two films only extend as far as “both are about young, gay black men.” However, “The Wound” tells a story just as powerful as the one in “Moonlight,” but set in a world that is far less familiar.

The film makes a capital-C Choice in its final moments that might – justifiably – not sit right with the audience. It’s a character and tonal leap, to say the least, and represents a sharp left turn for the film. It felt slightly more plausible to me upon a rewatch and certainly more earned. But wherever you may fall on its ending, “The Wound” is a movie worth watching for myriad reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s as emotionally and dramatically compelling as any American indie to come out this year. Seek it out and see it on the big screen.

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