Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie is a haunting, incisive look at apartheid-era toxic white masculinity.
Virgin Soldiersby Olivia Neilson
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Moffie. The word won’t mean much to a non-Afrikaans speaker, but it’s a bold, shocking title for a South African film. It’s a weighted, painful homophobic slur which has historically been used to single out gay men, to make their gayness visible in a derogatory, shame-inducing way. Until the end of apartheid, to be a moffie was also to be a crime, so it also evokes the fear of being found out as an illegal. There is even further anxiety around the word if you were a gay, white South African man in the seventies and eighties, a time when white men were conscripted to fight in the South African Border War. To be singled out as a moffie during this period would be traumatising. It would impart mental and physical scars from a programme of forced homosexual conversion that many people do not even know existed.
Fourth-time director Oliver Hermanus decided to take on this taboo subject after he was presented the idea by producers Eric Abraham (who also produced the Oscar-winning Ida) and Jack Sidey. Taking flight from the memoir Moffie by the South African writer Andre-Carl van der Merwe, the team spent years researching how best to adapt the true story into a feature. The result is a bold, distinctive drama which doesn’t hermetically look at the trauma of being a gay white man during the period, it’s also a haunting, incisive look at how the apartheid-era army was a breeding ground for toxic masculinity which fed homophobia, racism and the dehumanisation of homosexuals and black people.
The moment the young men are sent off to the army, Hermanus creates a sense of chaos and disorientation. There’s the barking of orders from the army generals, gruelling training, revolting sequences of public humiliation, and haunting racist and homophobic attacks. But within this toxic environment which looks like it should have no room for softness, tenderness or kindness, Hermanus skilfully creates space for queerness and for a pure coming-of-age emotion as Nicholas Van der Swart (exquisitely played Kai Luke Brummer) falls for one of the other soldiers, Dylan (Ryan de Villiers). Being sexually awoken in the army creates all sorts of expected conflicts inside Nicholas’ head, but Hermanus gives him room to breathe, to feel, to experience his queerness in unlikely places. It could be in an extreme close-up of Nicholas’ face as he looks on at Dylan playing volleyball in their time off training or in the way the pair share a dug-out trench to sleep in with Dylan slowly reaching out to touch Nicholas’ face. In this austere style of filmmaking, moments of subtle release give way to majestic, raw emotion.
Moffie is a magnetising, exhilarating and authentic snapshot of the South African Defence Force in the eighties with searing critiques of the absurd pressures of white masculinity. Moving from frenetic, all-consuming scenes of action and chaos to a more abstract, pensive and?introspective style of filmmaking, there is space to think in the madness of army life. Whilst Kai Luke Bremer as Nicholas brings a quiet power to the film, the cast of young men playing the soldiers and generals bring outstanding energy and dynamism to the film.
Rather than looking at some of South Africa’s most pressing social issues in a categorised way, Hermanus unpicks how homophobia and racism are cut from the same cloth, how there is a shared root cause in the extreme prejudice homosexuals and black people face. That is in the culture of toxic white masculinity within the army, in the relentless drumming into these soldiers that their lives were worthless, that they were the property of the state and vessels of an ideology, an ideology which aimed to fight and expel homosexuals and people of colour. A project which either alienated young men, brainwashed them or was accepted by them. One which either sucked them up into the system or made them an outsider to it. A system where white supremacy was the dominant order of things.
Oliver Hermanus’ skill as a filmmaker is the way he manages to create room for subjectivity and space to think within this all-shouting, all-swearing, all-insulting macho environment. Often moving into Nicholas’ daydreams, we are brought back to his childhood trauma of being exposed as gay and the difficulties he has in articulating his queerness to his family. Whilst the memoir Moffie reveals the shocking details of Ward 22, the appalling torture programme where homosexual soldiers underwent shock ‘therapy’, chemical castration and even forced surgical sex changes, Hermanus only hints at this infamous ward with short sequences like that of a bad dream, always telling the story from the lens and experience of Nicholas who manages to hide his orientation enough so that he isn’t sent there.
Moffie is vital and bold filmmaking. It’s set to be a landmark in South African cinema and will no doubt help pave the way for further nuanced South African films centred on the subjects of queerness, race relations and what it means to be a man today.
Moffie screened at the London Film Festival. It is released on Curzon Home Cinema on 24 April 2020. The live Q&A with director Oliver Hermanus will begin at 8.30pm (GMT) on 24 April at http://live.curzonhomecinema.com, and Curzon encourages people at home to watch along together from 6.30pm (GMT) – this is not essential, the film will be on the service that morning.