The author and director Oliver Hermanus created Moffie from an autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe – but he gives the film a touch of lived experience. Daniel Rutland Manners / IFC Films hide subtitles
Daniel Rutland Manners / IFC Films
Daniel Rutland Manners / IFC Films
It’s Cape Town, 1981. A family gathers for a birthday party – but it’s actually a farewell.
In the South African drama Moffie, Nicholas, a teenager as subdued as his relatives, will leave for military service in the morning, which is compulsory for boys between 16 and 20 years old. In this era of apartheid, brutal segregation and rule by the white minority, his basic education will prove anything but basic.
However, this evening is all about family and mood. Mom is brave. Nick’s divorced father even came over to associate himself with a gift – a girls’ magazine – a little manly – “to use as ammunition, you know.” Nicholas would clearly have preferred a hug.
On the train to the boot camp it becomes clear that he is part of a minority within the white minority – English in a society dominated by aggressively racist Dutch Africans who are permeated with toxic masculinity.
If an older black man sitting in a train station doesn’t immediately stand in the presence of the boys, there is hell to pay.
And during the training they are heading towards, their drill instructor amplifies all of the vitriol.
“Black savages,” he says, “are so close to our front door that we can smell them. But we will defend our borders, our freedom, our women, our children. Right, Schorf?”
Films about military training, from Full Metal Jacket to Private Benjamin, have some things in common: tough sergeants, innocent recruits, strenuous field exercises. This one has a little extra, as Nicholas keeps his head down – in the field, in the barracks, in the showers.
Maybe in the showers, because the state has another enemy – one who further separates Nicholas from the people he serves with and who gives the film its title.
“Moffie” is the Afrikaans slur for gay people. It suggests weakness, abnormality – and when two men are injured and brutally dragged in front of the unit to sing the term, there is no question how the other should feel.
The author and director Oliver Hermanus works here based on an autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe, but he gives the film a touch of lived experience.
While the director is gay, he does not share Nicholas’ race or background and was born after the events depicted in the film. But he made a movie about how the time when white South African boys were forced to become a certain type of macho aggressive man still affects South African society.
Hermanus avoided making a relationship movie, although he certainly could have. Kai Luke Brummer, who plays Nicholas, and Ryan De Villiers, who plays the gentle giant he bonds with, look and act like younger versions of Guy Pearce and Rupert Everett.
However, the film is not about exposing the pain of a few soldiers, but rather examining the violence that their persecution has done to society.
Hermanus stated in interviews that the language in the film is supposed to be the trigger. The word “communist”, which he told The Guardian at the film’s premiere in Cannes in 2019, has long been interchangeable with “terrorist” in South Africa, which was interchangeable with “black man”. Just as “Moffie” was interchangeable with “pedophile”, which was interchangeable with “atheist”.
The point, he said, was to mark someone – make them different and demonize them. And the quietly tortured ending to his film suggests that so much institutional hatred has resulted in a generation being traumatized.