As our coverage of African art forms over recent months has shown, the continent’s creative talents are blazing an exciting new trail internationally. The Film Africa 2017 festival in London is yet another example of this trend. Beverly Andrews reviews two of the outstanding films shown during the festival.
Africa, like many other places in the world today, is very much in a state of transition. But just as the liberal democracies of the West appear to be on the retreat, with populist figures in Europe and America in the ascendancy, Africa appears to be experiencing the exact opposite.
This is illustrated perhaps nowhere more eloquently then in Zimbabwe, with its ageing leader, the last of the revolutionary giants who ruled in post-colonial Africa, Robert Mugabe, being gently eased from power, paving the way, it is hoped, for a truly representative government.
This progressive wave is also being mirrored in the art coming from the continent, highlighted at London’s Film Africa film festival, which showcased some of the continent’s most vital, powerful and important films, films which are as innovative as any being produced anywhere in the world today. Like the African Contemporary Art Fair in 2017, the festival provided clear proof that Africa is now the home of groundbreaking art.
With so many gems on show during the course of the festival, it feels churlish to highlight only a few titles, but both South Africa’s The Wound, the festival’s opening film and its closing feature, Foreign Body, from Tunisia, stand out.
Both tackle unlikely, controversial narratives but both in their own ways demonstrate how, in each of their respective countries, communities are struggling to find ways to combine tradition with modernity. Both films also show a startling originality.
The Wound, directed by John Trengrove, looks at the rite of passage all Xhosa boys are expected to undergo as adolescents, a form of male circumcision. They are taken to an isolated rural location to undergo this physical transformation but in the process of their wounds healing, they are also expected to make the psychological journey to becoming young men.
Trengrove’s tough as well as sensitive portrayal of this very secret ritual shows not only the boys struggling to come to terms with how to define their masculinity; their male mentors appear also to be struggling with these very same issues – asking themselves what makes a man. During the boys’ stay at the camp you also see how their sexual insecurities rise to the surface.
The Wound’s title alludes not only to the physical wounds of circumcision, but also to the various other wounds – mainly psychological – that the boys and their mentors are grappling with. In many ways, the various characters in the film form a microcosm of South Africa today, a country still divided, though now not necessarily on racial grounds but economic, tribal as well as sexual lines.
Coming to terms
The Wound’s main lead character is Xolani, a thirty-something Eastern Cape factory worker who seems very much marginalised in the new South Africa. Unmarried, with few economic opportunities, he lives a closed life with his only outlet being his yearly return to the site of his own initiation, where he now acts as a mentor. Part of the attraction for him returning is his desire to renew his relationship with his childhood friend Vija, a married man of three who also acts as a mentor.
Xolani’s attitude to his young charges is paternalistic at best but mainly one of mild indifference, until he meets Kwanda, the son of a wealthy patron. Born into a well-off black family with a tribal father who has made good and now living in a posh suburb in Johannesburg, Kwanda makes it clear that he is there under duress and he therefore challenges the ritual at every given opportunity.
He also confronts Xolani since he works out very quickly that he is gay. He challenges him to come to terms with his own life, pointing out that as a mentor, he bears an even greater responsibility to come to terms with himself.
In most Western films this would be a point of recognition, when the two figures would bond; in Trengrove’s feature the opposite happens, as mutual recognition gives way to anger and hostility, mirroring perhaps South Africa’s ongoing struggles to come to terms with its own LGBT community.
The film, though, is more than a simple look at a gay relationship. It is an examination of the struggle that perhaps many countries on the continent still face as they try to decide what to embrace from the modern world and which of their traditions they should leave behind.
To its credit, The Wound offers no easy answers, as its star, openly gay singer, Nakhane Touré, pointed out at the film’s UK premiere. “Many women and members of the LGBT community feel very ambivalent about this ritual and I can very much understand why, since it excludes them. But I also have to say as a proud Xhosa man that I am glad that I did undergo this. I absolutely understand why others would feel excluded by this but for me it was the right thing to do.
“And maybe the way forward would be to find a middle ground where those who do not wish to undergo it are not excluded but for those who do want to go through with it, they can.”
The Wound has won critical acclaim around the world and is South Africa’s official entry for the Oscars as the best foreign language film. But it has also attracted a great deal of controversy as well, as Touré points out. “I think as the film has grown in popularity and become more famous it has also attracted the opposite reaction and at the moment I can no longer live in the country, which of course is something we hadn’t expected.
“Whether that is because of its LGBT theme or because it depicts a secret Xhosa male ritual, we don’t know but we feel if it had remained a little-known film, this probably would not have occurred.”
Escaping psychological prisons
Tunisian director Raja Amari’s Foreign Body tackles similarly controversial issues as it focuses on a young Tunisian woman, Samia, fleeing her country and arriving in France, with no money, no family and most importantly, no legal immigration documents.
A friend of her brother, who we later find out is a violent fundamentalist, offers to help but we quickly become aware of the fact that he may symbolise what it is Samia is actually fleeing from. Samia, without his help, finds work for a wealthy widow of a French businessman, who is also Tunisian. The film charts how the women, after overcoming their mutual distrust, help each other to escape from the prisons they both inhabit.
In Samia’s case, it is the religious conservatism of her native land, and for the older woman, Leila, it is the emotional numbness she has found herself living with since her husband’s death. The women help each other to learn to live again.
What both The Wound and Foreign Body do is cast a spotlight on a younger generation of Africans who are trying to navigate the tricky balance between their cultural identity and their desire to fulfil their own lives. Although both films explore very different answers to these questions, they both point to a bright future for Africa’s vibrant, intelligent and groundbreaking new cinema. NA