Back when I was a journalism student at Natal Technikon now DUT I attempted, rather poorly, to articulate the continuous tension between tradition and culture which created a fair amount of conflict within my own mind and in the public sphere. I used the traditional practice of initiating boys into manhood in African-black culture as an example of when culture and tradition can be at odds.
In the piece I attempted to explain the practical reasons why male initiates went to the “mountain” during winter months for circumcision; first for privacy and second; the cold weather would speed up the healing process for their wounds. I argued that while living conditions and medical treatments had advanced to a point where male circumcision could take place almost anywhere in any season; initiation schools continued to perform the rituals as they were done 200 years ago as if nothing had changed. My analysis was made in the context of a rising number of botched circumcisions which killed a number of boys and left many others injured and or castrated.
But it’s not that simple
This week a better example presented itself through the banning of Inxeba, – The Wound, a South African film which explores tradition and sexuality amid Xhosa male rites of passage or male circumcision at some Cinemas in parts of the country.
The film hit a raw nerve among ( Xhosa) traditionalist who see it as a violation of a sacred tradition. Lwando Xasa and Zukiswa Pikoli opined that the filmmaker, William Trengove, a white male had no right making a movie about us.
“Telling our stories through a white lens ensures the dominance and centrality of whiteness.We don’t know Trengove or his reasons for making the movie and showing it to a foreign audience. What we do know is that he made a movie on Xhosa initiation that is off-limits to him.”
The pair along with many who are opposed to the film argue that it is a continuation of a white supremacists policy of demeaning and bastardising African cultural beliefs.
Others said the film, which I have not seen, is less about Xhosa initiation rites and more about homosexuality. A subject which was the motivation behind the films’ creation according to its director William Trengove,
“In writing ‘The Wound’, inspiration came, unexpectedly, from Robert Mugabe. Statements that he and other African leaders have made since the early 90s imply that homosexuality is a symptom of Western decadence that threatens ‘‘traditional’’ culture. And so, we thought ok, let’s use that idea. Let’s imagine ‘‘gayness’’ as a kind of virus that penetrates and threatens a patriarchal organism, and let’s see how that organism responds to being penetrated.”
Not very well it seems.
In the film, he used a cast of untrained actors who were all former Xhosa initiates who re-enacted some of the rituals involved in the initiation process including a sex scene which is the main bone of contention. The inclusion of the sexual act during the initiation ceremony has angered many people including the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (contralesa) who said the movie “wounds” African cultural practices. Contralesa’s Prince Manene said in a Mail&Guardian interview that they are not opposed to the film’s gay content.
“If people do that thing, they can do it somewhere else — not within our cultural practice. It doesn’t happen in initiation schools. This is ridiculing our cultural practice. We are being embarrassed. The things that are being shown there is not what is happening in the mountain. It is disgusting and disrespectful of our cultural practices. People making love in an initiation school is not something we see,”
And this is where the conflict between tradition; the passing of beliefs and customs to the next generation and culture; characteristics which describe a particular society at a particular time, takes place.
Trengove is well within his rights in a democratic society to use his imagination to explore and probe subjects which fascinate him which are not only limited to his own culture, tradition or lived experiences – irrespective of his privileged power position as a white male. The constitution guarantees him this right. Despite his own admission that doing the film is problematic…
“As a white man, representing marginalised black realities that are not my own, the situation is of course complicated. Even highly problematic – It was important to me that the story mirrors this problem. The character of Kwanda is an outsider to the traditional world; he expresses many of my own ideas about human rights and individual freedom. He’s also the problem. His preconceptions create jeopardy and crisis for others who have much more to lose than him. This was my way of saying, ‘‘I don’t have the answers and my own values don’t necessarily apply here.’’
In this way Trengoves’ “The Wound” shares a similar narrative tackled by Senegalese filmmaker Ousmane Sembene whose last film Moolaade (2004) which depicts women’s’ resistance against the practice of female circumcision (FGC) in a small village in Burkina Faso, was criticised for being a ‘staging of a human rights drama; a performance of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights by employing an “ethical and political category that takes as its departure point a modernity rooted in colonialism.” A slight supported by it being awarded UNESCO Felini Medal, for a long career depicting the struggle for Women’s rights, asserting the role of NGO’s and the United Nations as long-term supporters of Sembene’s films.
Through Moolaade we are made to understand that female circumcision prevalent in West African countries is a tradition clung to for no other reason than to maintain the status quo of male supremacy and patriarchy; by making females docile and marriageable. In Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, Amy Boden argues that by, “writing the Islamic male elders of the village as one-dimensional characters who seem to oppress their wives and daughters solely for the sake of religious tradition and their own sexual desires and egos, Sembène avoids staging a dialogue between the cultural factions advocating for and against genital cutting”
True, only those who are passing on traditional customs can speak highly of its merits both for an individual and community. Yet this should not automatically disqualify them from performing such customs as a consequence of incidents of malpractice including accidents.
A character flaw
Even though traditionalists might have a point about the inaccurate depiction of male initiation rights in the film, their protestations however valid make them appear mean and homophobic.
Similar to an incident in the UK, when the Australian teenage heart-throb and former Neighbours star Jason Donovan sued The Face magazine in 1992 for claiming he was gay. Although he was successful in the case, he also successfully alienated the gay community which resulted in an overall loss of support from his fan base; who saw his court action as petty and unnecessarily vindictive. Though by all accounts he was entitled to defend himself and his honour – doing so was interpreted as “hate-speech.” His defence inferred that there is something intrinsically wrong or unacceptable about those people who are, in fact, homosexual.
If Contralesa and indeed all those negatively affected by Inxeba are seriously aggrieved by the film they should also approach the Film and Publication Board of South Africa, The South African Broadcasting Complaints Commission and the South African Human Rights Commission including the courts, for remedy.
Because this is what we all signed up for
We wanted a democratic country which embraces multiculturalism in all its resplendent manifestations. So we must protect the right to freedom of expression so that we too can practice our traditional customs freely. We signed up for a country in which we could speak freely and have open and transparent discussions about topics and practices which concern us, including those we might deem to be sacrosanct.
So, by all accounts, traditionalist must protest and protect their traditional customs from ridicule and degradation by imaginative artists if they must, but they do not have the right to block others from practising their culture freely; i.e their right to watch a movie of their choice at a cinema.
As “they” say: it takes more than balls to be a man.