NPR’s Lulu Garcia-Navarro talks to director Oliver Hermanus about his new film Moffie, set in 1981 in South Africa during the apartheid era.
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The film “Moffie” is set in apartheid South Africa in 1981, where a young recruit has to complete two years of military service to fight against those who want to get rid of the country’s racist politics. Oliver Hermanus is the director of “Moffie” and he’s joining me now. Welcome to the program.
OLIVER HERMANUS: Hi. How are you?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I’m fine. First, can you tell us what moffie means and how the term is used?
HERMANUS: The term moffie is a derogatory word in Afrikaans. It is a weapon of shame used to criticize or humiliate men for lack of masculinity. And it eventually turned into a derogatory word that suggests you were gay. But in its original function, its potency also applied to straight men. In our movie, all of these boys who go to the army – being called Moffie is a thing you don’t want to be called. But if you are actually gay you would be kind of double the potency. And obviously it was illegal to be gay during apartheid. So being called a Moffie was a big risk.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you grew up in South Africa and you were openly gay, but you didn’t grow up in the time we see in the film. What made you decide to tell this story now?
HERMANUS: It was a very complex journey for me because I was born in ’83 and this film is set in ’81. And I’m not a white South African. I am a mixed South African. So my childhood still lived under apartheid. My parents lived most of their lives oppressed by apartheid. As a film director, it was a pretty big question for someone like me to be asked to make my first apartheid set film and that this film should be an investigation into the trauma of white men during apartheid. And that was the original hurdle for me – why did I go? Why this story? And I think in the end I realized that there was also this faction of men who were experiencing something related to being oppressed by a system that, oddly enough, should have benefited in other ways. And so, in some ways, our main character is just as illegal as other members of society at the time.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, the extraordinary thing about it is that young men were sent off at the age of 16. This is incredibly young.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: And most of the military training is seen from the perspective of the main character Nicholas and is brutal. Can you describe the types of techniques and practices that were used in actual men over those two years?
HERMANUS: We were really really crazy about our research and so many of the scenes that we show in the film, deprived of their individuality and identity, are very much that would happen. And it’s kind of a standard military thing. And so it would be about humiliation. It would be about defeating any kind of political attitudes, any kind of intellectualism, obviously any kind of sexuality, if that were the problem. But you weren’t allowed to be a free thinking person. The other thing I think to remind yourself of the legality of this conscription was that you were owned by the state for those two years. If you were killed or died under their supervision, your family had no recourse to prosecute the government in any way.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a mixed race, I would like to ask you how racism is portrayed in this film. I mean, the only time the viewer sees black people is when they are being brutally treated. What made you choose?
HERMANUS: I was very determined to position the audience in the headspace of racist white South Africa. If you were a young white person, or a white boy, or a white teenager, a white man, your interaction with blacks was the type of interaction we show in this movie where black people were there for you to abuse you or to hurt or take advantage of or humiliate or harm. So it’s an awkward position to address an audience, especially at this time in history, but I think as a person who has experienced racism many times in my life it has been necessary to demonstrate this to a white audience that is seeing this would movie. This is what racism looks like.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many of the young men who were trained and indoctrinated in apartheid-era propaganda are still alive and still there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are you part of the conversation in South Africa today about racing?
HERMANUS: You know, they always say that South Africa is a country full of people, where all the laws are changing and apartheid is going away, and we have welcomed a new president and a new country, but the people were still the same people, It was there that South Africa became a democratic state the day before. And I think it has always been a challenge to make a film about the trauma of these men who are still alive and well because I can never say for sure that this generation of men has been reformed in some way or that the ideas have are kind of pressed in the heads while their military service does not linger yet. That is the question the film asks.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Since they are white people, what do you think white people are in South Africa or elsewhere – even here where the legacy of segregation and racism that is still alive and well – what would your opinion be made of after coming out? a movie like this one?
HERMANUS: It’s a difficult film for white South Africans. You know it’s a confrontational movie. It’s a movie that tells these men who joined the army, even though it was technically against their will, that some of the things you did, or maybe many of the things you did, were criminals and committed human rights abuses to have. So it’s a tough question. You know, we are a country where at some level we try to make new bonds and connect as a society in a way that doesn’t cling to the past. In some ways, however, we also need to acknowledge the past. And I think for black South Africans a movie like “Moffie” just gives them a glimpse of what things might have been like on the other side, and realizes that maybe it has more dimension. It’s not that every single white South African who went to this army was an absolute racist.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it is interesting what you say that whether you are white or black you may learn different lessons from it, and this is the place of art to contribute. I wonder where you are seeing the response to what is and has happened here.
HERMANUS: When we premiered “Moffie” at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, a woman was murdered in Cape Town a few days before our premiere in South Africa. She had gone to the post office and asked the man behind the desk very innocently. And he told her to come back a few hours later for the package she was expecting, and he actually killed her on the property of that post office. It was this horrific type of gender-based violence that sent a shock wave across the country. And it had that kind of response that there was a moment of pause being a real race woman in South Africa, especially if you were a black woman. And that – there was the biggest march against gender-based violence in South Africa on the same day that our film premiered in Venice.
And when George Floyd was murdered, it felt the same to me. It felt like a crime had been committed in America that sparked that extreme moment of pause, when the question Americans are currently facing arguably arises across cultures, races, and races – what is what connects us? How is it that we connect with one another unscathed or without a sense of inheritance that dictates that we treat one another as less or more?
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oliver Hermanus is the director of “Moffie”. It is now available in selected cinemas and available on video on request and of course digitally. Thank you for joining us.
HERMANUS: You’re welcome.
(SOUNDBITE FROM SHIDA SHAHABIS “ALL IN CIRCLES”)
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