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Understanding the rites of passage for other cultures other than one’s own is often tough, but this new movie, the debut feature from white South African filmmaker John Trengove, focuses on an African tribal ritual that seems positively unbearable, and nigh on impossible to understand. Shot in a remote part of his country, it is the story of the age-old initiation ceremony of adolescent boys in the rural Xhosa community that involves a very crude form of circumcision. The boys are taken to the wilderness for what is known as Ukwaluka, and during the 10 day recovery period they are mentored by older male caregivers (ikhankatha) about the secret codes, practices and responsibilities of being a Xhosa man.

One of the caregivers is Xolani (Nakhane Touré) a 30-something-year-old factory worker from the dingy provincial town of Queenstown. He is gay and has somehow successfully avoided all the pressures to ‘be a man’ and take a wife as expected, and now leads a very lonely closeted life. However the highlight of his year is to be able to come back to the annual ‘Ukwaluka’ to be a caregiver, not because he feels he has knowledge he wants to impart as a mentor, but simply because it is his one chance to hook up with his old lover Vija (Bongile Mantsai). He is now a married father of three children who takes his role as a caregiver very seriously, even though he is happy enough to slip away every spare moment to have some rough sex with Xolani.

Everything would probably all settle into their usual routine except for the fact that Xolani’s charge this year is Kwanda (Niza Jay) the spoilt son of a wealthy tribesman turned businessman who has insisted that he goes through the ritual because he believes the boy has ‘gone soft’ living in the big city. He is by far more westernized than any of the other ‘initiates’ and not only is he bold enough to question the Elders about the whole painful routine, but he soon works out that Xolani has a secret which is very similar to his own.

Even with Kwanda and Xolani recognizing themselves in each it still fails to bond them as it would in other cultures, and is in fact actually a cause of friction between the two of them. Kwanda confronts him with ‘You want me to stand up and be a man, but you cannot do it yourself.’ Of all the things that are taboo in this traditional patriarchal society, none is more serious than homosexuality, so they have some very touch choices to make.

There is also a difficulty in coming to terms that the fact that this barbaric custom make take these young men into the stark wilderness for 10 days, but the reality is they lead lives far removed from the tribal villages of their ancestors. It is nowhere more apparent when one of the boys describes the top of his newly circumcised penis as having a ‘Mercedes Benz’ cut.

Tengrove working from a script from Malusi Bengu and Thando Mgqolozana doesn’t sugar coat the inane cruelty of this whole ritual, but he does portray the impossible relationship with Xolania and Vija with a great deal of sympathy as befitting their rather touching tenderness. Some of the best scenes in the movie are with the two men struggling with their limitations which despite all their hopes and desires, will never ever change.

This brief look into how this culture still deals with male sexuality is brutally frank and although it makes for difficult viewing at times, it is so completely compelling and holds you with such rapt attention until the final credits role. Beautifully filmed, and with fine production values, it is a provocative drama that will resound deeply with LGBT men and way beyond.

Highly recommended.

Understanding the rites of passage for other cultures other than one’s own is often tough, but this new movie, the debut feature from white South African filmmaker John Trengove, focuses on an African tribal ritual that seems positively unbearable, and nigh on impossible to understand. Shot in a remote part of his country, it is the story of the age-old initiation ceremony of adolescent boys in the rural Xhosa community that involves a very crude form of circumcision. The boys are taken to the wilderness for what is known as Ukwaluka, and during the 10 day recovery period they are mentored by older male caregivers (ikhankatha) about the secret codes, practices and responsibilities of being a Xhosa man.

One of the caregivers is Xolani (Nakhane Touré) a 30-something-year-old factory worker from the dingy provincial town of Queenstown. He is gay and has somehow successfully avoided all the pressures to ‘be a man’ and take a wife as expected, and now leads a very lonely closeted life. However the highlight of his year is to be able to come back to the annual ‘Ukwaluka’ to be a caregiver, not because he feels he has knowledge he wants to impart as a mentor, but simply because it is his one chance to hook up with his old lover Vija (Bongile Mantsai). He is now a married father of three children who takes his role as a caregiver very seriously, even though he is happy enough to slip away every spare moment to have some rough sex with Xolani.

Everything would probably all settle into their usual routine except for the fact that Xolani’s charge this year is Kwanda (Niza Jay) the spoilt son of a wealthy tribesman turned businessman who has insisted that he goes through the ritual because he believes the boy has ‘gone soft’ living in the big city. He is by far more westernized than any of the other ‘initiates’ and not only is he bold enough to question the Elders about the whole painful routine, but he soon works out that Xolani has a secret which is very similar to his own.

Even with Kwanda and Xolani recognizing themselves in each it still fails to bond them as it would in other cultures, and is in fact actually a cause of friction between the two of them. Kwanda confronts him with ‘You want me to stand up and be a man, but you cannot do it yourself.’ Of all the things that are taboo in this traditional patriarchal society, none is more serious than homosexuality, so they have some very touch choices to make.

There is also a difficulty in coming to terms that the fact that this barbaric custom make take these young men into the stark wilderness for 10 days, but the reality is they lead lives far removed from the tribal villages of their ancestors. It is nowhere more apparent when one of the boys describes the top of his newly circumcised penis as having a ‘Mercedes Benz’ cut.

Tengrove working from a script from Malusi Bengu and Thando Mgqolozana doesn’t sugar coat the inane cruelty of this whole ritual, but he does portray the impossible relationship with Xolania and Vija with a great deal of sympathy as befitting their rather touching tenderness. Some of the best scenes in the movie are with the two men struggling with their limitations which despite all their hopes and desires, will never ever change.

This brief look into how this culture still deals with male sexuality is brutally frank and although it makes for difficult viewing at times, it is so completely compelling and holds you with such rapt attention until the final credits role. Beautifully filmed, and with fine production values, it is a provocative drama that will resound deeply with LGBT men and way beyond.

Highly recommended.

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