“What do you see in him? Do you think he cares about you? Do you think he thinks about you? You want me to be a man and stand up for myself but you can’t do it yourself. Aren’t you tired? Pretending to be something you’re not” Kwanda to Xolani
I first learned about “Inxeba” last year through a facebook post on how some South Africans had been protesting and pushing to ban the movie from showing and others criticizing the fact that it exposed the sacred traditions of Xhosa. When I read the article about the critique on capitalizing on and demonizing sacred Afrikan traditions, I was torn to be honest. I spent a couple days wondering whether there is a point where we can both critique and celebrate our cultures. Can we? If people have expressed the dangers of a particular tradition, what duty do we have as a society to ensure the violence it perpetuates stops? Anyway, this all happened after the release of the trailer, not the movie. After a year of waiting, I finally watched Inxeba for myself *
Inxeba (2017) is a South African drama film directed by John Trengove, starring the incredible Xolani as Nakhane Touré, Kwanda as Niza Jay Ncoyini and Vija as Bongile Mantsai among others. Nominated for World Cinema- Dramatic at the Sundance Film Festival, it has received various international awards such as Best Foreign film from African-American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), and best film by World Cinema Amsterdam as well as various awards from the South African Film and Television.
I want to say that Inxeba is about the journey of Kwanda, a young boy from a rich family who participates in the Xhosa traditional ritual of manhood Ulwaluko because it would make his father happy. However, I feel as though this would be oversimplifying the storyline. Inxeba intrinsically introduces and tells the story of various characters: Kwanda, the city boy and two caregivers Xolani (who is Kwanda’s caregiver) and Vija in the shared experience and space where the ritual takes place. A caregiver, as explained in the movie is a young adult man in the community that teaches the boy how to nurse his wound while simultaneously introducing him into manhood through different activities and traditions. Inxeba is more about showing the viewers the socialization of men, masculinity and hyper-masculinity, and the dangers of heteronormativity through the relationships of the main three characters.
One of the popular scenes in Inxeba is where the boys are being circumcised. As this is done, the boys- in vivid pain- are asked to repeat the words “I am a man”. I personally find these few seconds to be significant as this is the making of a man. Strength, endurance and lack of emotion are the feelings you see communicated in the scene. What is a man? A man is strong. What is a man? A man feels no pain. What is a man? A man shows no pain. You must neither cry nor cringe. What is a man? A man goes through pain in order not to feel pain. This is our first introduction to the manhood the boys are introduced to.
In order to understand the incredible and revolutionary story in Inxeba, the audience must put as much emphasis in understanding each character as the director did.
Xolani, Kwanda’s caregiver, is a young adult that comes to the mountain every year for the ritual. Through an exchange, where Xolani hands money to Vija, the audience learns that Xolani works hard in the city and is able to make more money than Vija (who lives outside the city). Vija is a married man with a child, who participates in the ritual as well. Vija and Xolani got initiated at the same and as the movie reveals, this is where their intimate relationship began. While Xolani and Vija have an intimate relationship, it meant different things to each character. As far as Vija is concerned, this was a sexual relationship, nothing more. However, Xolani, in a conversation with Vija says, “I was always the clever one at school. I could have left. Instead I work. I live alone. Eat alone. But I always come back here… I come back for you. To help you…”, suggesting to Xolani this was more to him than just the sexual intimacy. Furthermore, we see the different understandings of this relationship to each character by the way they engage with each other through sex. In one scene, Xolani wanting to engage in a more intimate sexual experience is harshly pushed down to his knees by Vija simply to perform oral sex.
This contrast between Vija and Xolani extends into their personalities and the symbolism of their roles in society. Xolani is portrayed similar to Kwanda, a soft-spoken man unlike Vija who is portrayed as a very masculine man- hard, rough, demands authority and so forth. Vija is vividly respected by all the other caregivers and is continuously referred to as “the man” by all caregivers, which suggests that he is seen as the ideal man. Vija’s character is intentionally introduced in the movie in a scene where one caregiver greets him and asks, “still married?”. Not only is Vija the physical representation of a “strong” man, he is also socially the ideal man in his personality as well as his married status that elevates him above all other caregivers.
In her work “Compulsory heteronormativity and Lesbian Existence“, notable feminist Dr. Adrienne Rich explains,
“Women have married because it was necessary, in order to survive economically, in order to have children who would not suffer economic deprivation or social ostracism, in order to remain respectable, in order to do what was expected of women because coming out of “abnormal” childhoods they wanted to feel “normal,”…“
In this piece, Dr. Rich explains how marriage is an institution, where many engage to access social, economic and political power. In her work, we also understand that like many institutions, marriage can and is used to produce and maintain our societal views. In this case, it reproduces and maintains the ideology of heteronormativity. Furthermore, Dr. Rich ensures we understand that even women who are lesbian can participate in heterosexual marriages as a way to survive. We can also use this to explain Vija’s marriage. Vija performing heterosexuality is a way for him to access the social capita that Dr. Adrienne Rich describes such as respect. The presence of rewards for heterosexuality means that for those who act outside of this “norm” are punished. The knowledge of this coerces people (or characters) such as Xolani to participate in reproducing heteronormativity even when they are doing a great disservice to themselves, being violent to their identities and denying their own truth. Because they must to survive!
The introduction of Vija as a hypermasculine heterosexual man is important in understanding his hostility towards Kwanda, his constant disrespect to gay men illustrated by him using words like “faggots” and his reluctance to accepting his relationship with Xolani. Similarly, as Xolani is more emotionally invested in Vija, his consistent denying his relationship with Vija is not only to protect himself but also Vija. The dynamic of the three characters and their views on masculinity indicates how homophobia is deeply embedded in our everyday actions, and further illustrates the violence of heteronormativity.
“There is no homogenous idea of what masculinity is, there never was and there never will be.”- Nakhane Toure
One of the scenes that caused so much controversy shows the sexual and intimate relationship between Vija and Xolani- kissing and having sex. Kwanda, looking for his caregiver finds Vija and Xolani laying down together naked. Kwanda then looks at Vija and says, “Does your wife know the shit you get up to in the mountains?”. The possibility of Kwanda telling Vija’s wife and the entire community of his sexual relationship with Xolani threatens what he has been holding onto- his masculinity. Vija has been rewarded by society for being the ideal man, and knowing the violence that is perpetuated to gay men (which he participates in even towards Xolani), scares him. Vija, furious, threatens to assault Kwanda and alludes to killing him.
What comes as a shock to the audience is not Vija’s immediate angry reaction of wanting to kill Kwanda, instead it is the cunning plot by Xolani that leads to Kwanda’s death. Xolani’s desire to be approved and appreciated by Vija- to protect him and his established heterosexual relationship with his wife, ended up being more important than his freedom of sexuality. Maybe it was not more important but rather Xolani saw this as the only way he had to survive the social suicide that came with being an openly gay man.
The wound/ Inxeba does an excellent job in showing the audience how in order to protect oneself of these punishments, we risk the lives of others. Kwanda- whose character is a young man open about his sexuality and his personality existing outside what the norm of masculinity has prescribed- questions his caregiver, Xolani many times why he lives a secret and allows to be mistreated. To answer this, we can take into account what Dr. Rich says,
“Heterosexuality has been both forcibly and subliminally imposed on women, yet everywhere women have resisted it, often at the cost of physical torture, imprisonment~ psychosurgery, social ostracism, and extreme poverty.“
To normalize heterosexuality and reward it, is to harm people who exist outside of this spectrum. The negative sanctions to those who resist this such as torture, imprisonment, and death in some communities is another way in which we sustain the idea that heterosexuality is a norm. A sanction imposed on an identity simply communicates that that identity is a crime and/ or is not normal. When we punish folks who exist within the LGTQIA community, we are telling them that they are not normal, that they cannot exist and in order to get them right- they must go through this dehumanization. In doing this, we raise a society that definitely has LGBTQIA identifying folks but participating in heterosexual activities and call it the norm. The norm does not exist when we torture, kill, imprison and dehumanize those that push back against it. Moreover, it is also not humane to force people to live for survival when they could be thriving, living and adding more color to this universe.
Happy Pride Month
Adrienne Rich’s, Compulsory Sexuality and Lesbian Existence, click here