SOUTH AFRICA’S official submission to the Oscars this year was a story of Xhosa youth “going to the mountain” to become men. The film, set at a traditional initiation school in the remote Eastern Cape, was shortlisted for the foreign-language category (alas, it didn't make the final five) and has reaped awards at artsy festivals.

Back home, though, it is banned. “Inxeba” (The Wound) was pulled from mainstream cinemas in South Africa after a review board on February 14th re-classified it with the same rating given to pornographic films. Responding to complaints from traditional leaders, an appeals tribunal of the Film and Publication Board declared it could find no “artistic value” in “Inxeba” and warned that certain scenes could lead to “increased tensions in society”.

The film’s producers are now challenging this decision in court, pointing out that the restrictive X18 rating is meant for depictions of explicit sex and close-ups of genitals. Neither is found in “Inxeba”. The stink of censorship has some South Africans recalling the prudish days of racist apartheid where so many films were banned.

Traditional leaders argue that the film, through its portrayal of a coming-of-age circumcision ritual called “ulwaluko”, reveals secrets of Xhosa culture. This is nonsense; the film exposes nothing not already known. Nelson Mandela, who was Xhosa, vividly described the pain and personal significance of his own circumcision in “Long Walk to Freedom”.

Another complaint centres on the film’s director, John Trengrove, a white South African accused of appropriating Xhosa culture. Yet the film draws heavily from a novel by Thando Mgqolozana, “A Man Who is Not a Man”, about a circumcision gone wrong. Mr Mgqolozana is a co-writer of the film, which stars a black Xhosa cast. 

The main reason for the outcry is homophobia. The film questions traditional expectations of Xhosa masculinity through its depiction of a closeted gay relationship. The lead actor, Nakhane Touré, plays a factory worker who once a year cares for young men undergoing the initiation ritual, although his main interest is another male caretaker. Their secret liaison is rumbled by a savvy young initiate from big-city Johannesburg who is outspoken in challenging traditional beliefs, and who challenges Mr Touré's character to admit who he really is as a man. 

During the two weeks that “Inxeba” was shown in South Africa, before being categorised as porn, traditional leaders led marches on cinemas in the Eastern Cape. Cinema staff were thuggishly threatened, and screenings cancelled. Mr Touré, who is gay and Xhosa, has been receiving death threats since the trailer was released last year.

Unlike many other African countries, South Africa has no law against being gay; the right to be so was enshrined in the progressive post-apartheid constitution. South Africa was among the first countries in the world to allow gay marriage, in 2006, after a ruling by the Constitutional Court. But while the constitution is progressive, society is more conservative, particularly outside the big cities. Gay people face high levels of violence, and police often make little effort to catch perpetrators. In a horrendous phenomenon known as “corrective rape”, black lesbians in townships have been violently assaulted by men seeking to “turn them straight”. 

Yet South Africa, even in rural areas, can surprise. This is also the country of Casper Semenya, the Olympic-medal-winning 800-metre runner, who married her long-time partner, a woman, in a traditional ceremony. Their wedding in a Limpopo village made the pages of glossy magazines. 

There is a larger debate underway in South Africa about the value of certain traditions, in particular sexist ones such as the payment of bride prices. Should they be left behind, or can they be modernised? And in the case of the ritual depicted in “Inxeba”, what can be done to make it safer? Every year, of the thousands of Xhosa boys who “go to the mountain” to become men, dozens die or are left badly maimed after undergoing circumcisions by irresponsible practitioners claiming adherence to tradition. Surely that is the real scandal, and one worthy of protest.