Xolani, a lonely factory worker, travels to the rural mountains with the men of his community to initiate a group of teenage boys into manhood. When a defiant initiate from the city discovers his best-kept secret, Xolani's entire existence begins to unravel.
Documentary about initiation rituals in South Africa neatly combined with same-sex relation drama. Two taboo's nicely fitting together. 2nd story line blurs a bit in the end
Saw this movie at the Berlinale film festival 2017, where it was part of the Panorama section and programmed at the opening night. It has two main story lines. The first one shows the initiation rites itself. What these rituals entail is actually a taboo and details are not assumed to come out in the open, but nowadays it is less a taboo than it ever has been. Descriptions can be found in several recent books, for example one by Nelson Mandela. I consider this the documentary half of the movie. The second story line is the dramatic developments around the still dormant relationship of two men, Xolani and Vija. Their relationship existed for a long time but they lost track of each other, yet we see that it may be dormant but still partly active at the time of the initiation rites at hand. Like everywhere else in the world same-sex love is also a taboo in South Africa, but again less a taboo that is ever has been. Both plot lines come together at the remote terrain where the initiation rites will take its traditional course.
Kwanda is one of the young men to be initiated in the customs and traditions of the ancient tribes. Circumcision is part of the ritual plus a subsequent healing process under supervision of their respective caregivers. Kwanda's father asked Xolani as caregiver for Kwanda, and told him to be very strict with Kwanda as his mother had spoiled him too much. Vija is a caregiver of even three young men, who however do not play a role important enough to be mentioned by name. A particular detail about Xolani is, when passing through these rites as a young man, his experience was extra traumatic as he had no caregiver to support him, and had to cope on his own and to find out everything by himself.
In a side story line we see that Kwanda does not really blend in with the rest of the initiates. Some people explain it as simple jealousy (Kwanda wore much better shoes than the rest, his family had more money, and that he grew up in the city counts too). Others say that it is because he deviates from the rituals, for example by refusing to give a speech as we see all others do. In a later scene we see his shoes taken from him, but as he clearly takes a stand that he does not like it, he gets them back, contrary to what we see in movies with high school bullying as main topic. Later on, probably by making clear that he is able to speak out and stand up when needed, we see that he is not permanently kept away from the other initiates, but still remains not fully accepted as one of them though.
There comes a moment, about at two thirds of the running time, that the story blurs. It starts with changing focus away from the initiation rituals. We following our three main characters who see a daunting task before them to find their own way out of the situation that has grown between Xolani, Vija, and Kwanda. The latter has seen the other two in flagrant circumstances, but explicitly states that their secret is safe with him. Vija apparently does not trust him with their secret and chases Kwanda in the woods. From this moment on, each of the threesome faces his own problems how to deal with the outside world when returning from the initiation camp. And each has to find his own way out, which is the central theme of the last one third of the movie.
From the final Q&A I noted some pieces of information about South Africa without verification, yet relevant for the above. Their national constitution is very liberal and has no problems with same-sex relationships, even to the extent that South Africa was the third country in the world to allow same-sex marriages, long before it became mainstream in the Western countries. Roughly speaking, in some parts of the larger cities, same-sex relationships are more or less "normal", as far as normal goes when ample people have problems with its existence in the first place. On the other hand, in other parts of the same cities, it is not accepted at all, nor is it tolerated outside the big cities.
All in all, the above is presented in an informative as well as compelling way. The movie is partly a documentary and partly taking a stand on same-sex relationships packaged in a coherent story. As far as the documentary is concerned, rest assured that the fine details of the circumcision are suggested rather than shown, so there is virtually no blood in the movie other than with some inevitable fights with so many men together. The dramatic developments around the same-sex relationship between Xolani and Vija are shown in more detail on two occasions, but it does not dominate the screenplay at all. The predetermined setup of having two story lines, documentary next to a same-sex relationship drama, was confirmed in the final Q&A by the film makers. As said before, informative as well as compelling, thus a perfect way to open the Panaroma section of the Berlinale 2017.
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