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“When it hurts it means it’s working”. Those words, spoken by The Wound‘s withdrawn protagonist Xolani (Nakhane Touré), neatly summarises the cultural attitude the film depicts ― and rallies against.
Director John Tengrove examines a South African tradition in the Xhosa community, designed to celebrate burgeoning manhood. Annually, teenage boys travel to the Eastern Cape mountains and are violently circumcised, followed by a two week process of healing in which displays of toxic masculinity are encouraged, and showing signs of physical or emotional pain is not an option.
Xolani was one of those boys many years ago. Now he is a quiet, worn-down and closeted factory worker who returns to the mountains each year in order to train one of the teenage initiates. This year, that’s Kwanda (Niza Jay), a head-strong teen who is mocked by the other initiates for being a rich boy from Joburg. The ritual that the boys participate in is brutal and archaic; the film takes place away from technology, so you’d be forgiven for thinking these things happened in another time. However, the brief appearance of cell phones, and Kwanda retreating to his car to listen to pop music, remind us that these practices take place in the modern world.
The Wound screened as part of the Cambridge Film Festival’s African Film strand, as well as recently winning the Sutherland Award for best debut feature at the BFI London Film Festival.
While not as precise an artistic vision as some other films up for the award ― Ava, Summer 1993 ― it’s unsurprising that The Wound is connecting with audiences. It deals unflinchingly with toxic masculinity and how it suppresses queer desire, themes that are ever relevant and ripe for awarding when handled correctly. The Wound has something to say, and it says it directly.
While The Wound hits many of the right notes, a more considered approach may have made it more effective. It almost runs too smoothly, hitting all the expected narrative and emotional beats and therefore not never becoming challenging or confrontational enough to be truly vital. The film comments aggressively on the way that marginalised people internalise oppression, but I found the note it ends on to be unnecessarily sadistic and untrue to the nature of the characters as depicted up until that point. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth after a film that is generally worthwhile.
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