Inxeba is a sensitive exploration of toxic masculinity and repressed same-sex love, set against the backdrop of Ulwaluko, an initiation rite into manhood practised by the amaXhosa. —Pierre de Vos
In a country that has always celebrated diversity, Inxeba asks of Xhosa men whether they are able to welcome people who are queer, or whether they have to hide their sexual identity if they too want to take part in ulwaluko. It gives Xhosa men an opportunity to have an important conversation on homophobia. —Zukiswa Wanner
Writing an article about Trengrove’s movie was a hard decision because we would hate to be seen as legitimising his work.
It is not okay to subjectively delve into traditions and practices you are not a part of under the guise of sparking debate and engagement.—Lwando Xaso and Zukiswa Pikoli
Based on my experience of subtitles, I missed about 60% of what was said in Inxeba, and about 80% of what was meant.
Genre helps to fill in some gaps, but how, exactly, should Inxeba be classified. Is it the “love story” some people want to see? Is it the hardcore pornography South Africa’s Films and Classifications Board (FCB) has announced? Is it an act of white supremacist appropriation? Is it part of the long history of ethno-pornography that produces African appetite through white voyeurism? With its exploration of class—Xonali (Nakhane Touré) is a factory worker and gives money to his occasional sex partner, Vija (Bongile Montsai)—is it a story about the effects of class on South Africa’s rainbow imaginaries? Given (spoiler alert) the death of the young Kwanda, is it a story about the impossibility of weaving urbanity, class, faggotry, and ethnicity? Is it a story about competing forms of queer imaginaries: for Xonali and Vija, brief interludes snatched once a year because of other obligations and for Kwanda, the out and proud stance enabled by youth and money?
What gaps can genre fill? What can’t genre do?
Queerness—a shorthand, perhaps the wrong one—is often generated via scandal. Within queer histories, this is Jesse Helms and Robert Mapplethorpe, Jesse Helms and Marlon Riggs. More recently, in Kenya, it is Ezekiel Mutua and The Nest Collective.
The aesthetic object often disappears during scandal. We focus on obscenity trials, censorship, banning, repressive power, state control. I know Stories of Our Lives was banned in Kenya. I have no real clue what the film is about. About time in the film, light in the film, movement in the film, dialogue in the film, silence in the film, affect in the film, story in the film. The aesthetic object disappears.
What kind of aesthetic object is Inxeba? What kind of object is it for those of us working through subtitles and silences?
I watched the film because I read John Keene’s review. John writes beautifully about art. I trust him. And, at this point, I have been reading him on art and life for 20 years, since I first encountered him on an online listserv for black sexual minorities.
(there might be something to say about the role of black queer networks in creating shared memories and trust)
You recognize the ethnographic novel because it pauses to convey significance. Something happens and the omniscient narrator, most often focalized through a political or spiritual leader, explains why that thing happens in that way. All novels engage in world building—I now believe this—but ethnographic novels tend to be ethno-nationalist: they build ethnic nations through myth and fantasy and history and ritual.
Inxeba is not ethnographic. While we see rituals performed, albeit briefly, they are rarely, if ever explained. We know, for instance, that healing herbs are used, but we are not told what specific herbs. We are never told the significance of colors in the film—the colors of the blankets the initiates wear, for instance. We are never told the significance of the walking sticks the initiates carry. We are never told the significance of climbing mountains or going to the waterfall or destroying initiate houses or displaying penises to elder men.
And if, as some critics of the film aver, Inxeba reveals secrets, I have no way of knowing what those are. Though I offer the caveat that, as a Kenyan somewhat interested in ritual, I have read multiple accounts from multiple Kenyan ethnic groups that make little of what I saw in Inxeba foreign. Different, but not foreign.
(I understand the distinction between those who “still do it the traditional way” and those who “go to hospital”)
If, like me, you are situated at the precarious intersection of black queer studies and African queer studies, you might have a few tools for thinking about the film.
As the film ends (spoilers), the other, presumably heterosexual initiates are welcomed into the community: they march alongside the men of the community and are met by the women of the community. Their roles are clear: they are to reproduce the community. In contrast, Xolani, the gay caretaker, walks alone with Kwanda, the “soft” initiate. The young Kwanda is loquacious, mocking the absent Vija, mocking the fragile masculinity that needs homophobia, mocking the ritual initiation and the fragile masculinity it endows, mocking the world of working class closeted men to which Xolani and Vija belong.
Kwanda is young. I recognize his impatience, his “fuck it all up,” his class blindness, his determination to seize everything the rainbow nation promises and that his father’s money guarantees.
Some of my favorite SA thinkers—wave to TO Molefe—have been especially illuminating about the role of class in the SA Rainbow Fantasy: black and gay is easier if you have some money, some education, some social capital, some ability to travel.
Inxeba takes seriously what it means to occupy multiple worlds: as an urban, deracinated, factory worker; as a caregiver for an initiation ritual; as a single man deeply attached to a married man; as a thirsty ho, ready to take the dick whenever you can, good or bad.
Xonali moves through multiple configurations of manhood: ritually certified, so he cannot be ignored; unmarried and without children, so still ritually incomplete; a factory worker, so with more disposable income than Vija (Vija has a wife and 3 children); fluent in enough Afrikaans to negotiate with a white land owner.
Vija incarnates tough masculinity: he has the muscles, the swagger, the wife and children, the audacity to steal a white man’s goat (literally!). Within a paradigm of something that might be called “traditional” masculinity, Vija checks all the boxes. Yet, within the racialized economies of contemporary South Africa, he is less legible as powerful masculinity. Good for a fuck, but that’s about it.
Vija may humiliate Xonali in a fight—and he does—but this display of physical strength only counts (?) within the sacred, ritual space of the film.
Inxeba asks about forms of attachment: what must the factory worker recognized as an initiate caregiver give up to retain his attachments? What must he sacrifice?
If the subtitles are not entirely misleading, Xonali tells Vija that he continues to travel as a caregiver, once a year, so that he can be with Vija. The rest of the time, he lives alone. He eats alone. He lives for these stolen moments. Perhaps he is celibate. Subtitles are tricky. Does alone mean he has no sexual encounters? Or that he has no attachments that matter the way his once-a-year encounters with Vija matter?
At night, two men walking, looking for space to be. We see their silhouettes. Enough to know we are looking at Xonali and Vija. Xonali moves in for a kiss. Vija pushes him away, pushes him down, demands fellatio, extracts it. It lasts barely 2 minutes. Vija walks away. There will be no kissing.
This is familiar.
Another scene. Perhaps at dusk. We see the two men clearly. Xonali moves in for a kiss. Vija is reluctant at first. But Xonali has gifted Vija with money. Vija permits the kiss. And then kisses back.
Another scene, after Vija has silenced the initiates who wanted to humiliate Xonali. “We have heard things. We know what you are.” Vija wades into a body of water, a waterfall in the background. Xonali follows him. What follows is the most extended—and tender—scene of lovemaking in the film. It is the only sexual scene in which both men are fully undressed. There is even spooning. (I am against spooning and cuddling, but that’s a whole other thing.)
Don’t get it twisted.
Sometimes, you want the quick fellatio, to get off in 30 seconds. Sometimes, you want the spit and fuck with the chokehold. Sometimes you want to kiss. Sometimes you don’t. These can all be forms of lovemaking. These can also all be forms of fucking and sucking. No love involved. No love required.
We know that Xonali returns every year—if I read the subtitles correctly—to be with Vija. Does Vija value these stolen moments as much?
To the extent that I can, I have avoided terms like queer, gay, dl, and closeted. I would like to sit with Inxeba for a while, to see what it’s trying to map, what languages it requires, what mistranslations it can bear, what aesthetic scrutiny it will receive, what conversations it will enable.
And to dream with it, with the impossibility incarnated by Kwanda and Xonali.