‘Moffie’ Offers a Queer Take on the Brutality of 1980s South African Apartheid
Don’t let the simplicity of Moffie, the fourth film from queer South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, lead you to make pat assumptions. The story of Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), based on the autobiographical book by André Carl van der Merwe, is a sly prism through which to view the brutality of apartheid with both granular personal specificity and massive social scope.
It’s 1981. South Africa, led by a white minority government, is stuck in what was called the Border War with Angola — an effort to keep communists out of the country. Nicholas, like all males over the age of 16, is about to start two years of compulsory military service intended to protect the Apartheid regime. We’re introduced to him saying goodbye to his family — his mother and stepfather, and his birth father, who passes along to him a porno mag. The moment is as awkward as it is unnecessary. As we will learn soon enough, Nicholas has no interest in buxom blondes with full bush and plump breasts.
Nicholas may be attracted to men, still a criminal activity under South African laws that were instituted more brutally inside the military complex. He makes a tentative connection with Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), a fellow recruit moving through basic training with the rest of the platoon (most of whom seem to be in their late teens/early 20s). Aware of his outsider status, Nicholas keeps to himself mostly, observant and cautious, always on the alert not to give himself away or be labelled a “moffie.”
“The word ‘moffie’ in South Africa is a pretty bad word,” the director has said. “It kind of goes beyond being just a gay slur. It’s a word that is used to shame men. It happens a lot to boys. You know, it’s used as a parameter. If you do something that transcends what a boy should do or like, the way a boy should behave, you hear that word being called out. ‘Don’t be a moffie.’ And so it has a really negative impact and in South Africa, still today, the word is really damaging. I don’t know this in English, I don’t know if there’s an equivalent, which is why I’m glad that we’re not changing the title of the film as it travels around the world.”
Moffie is not a war film or a gay love story or a strict condemnation of apartheid; it’s all those things and more, juxtaposed against each other in such intricate detail that the relationship between them is exposed clearly and methodically. Parts of the film have the languorous homoeroticism of Claire Denis’ sumptuous Beau Travail (especially when the troop hits the showers, where Hermanus lovingly pans across the exposed back and backsides of the exhausted recruits). The training scenes, overseen by the unnamed military instructor (played, with devilish gusto, by Jacques Theron), are reminiscent of the first section of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (complete with grunt suicide). But the tone of the film belongs to the source material and Hermanus’s nearly placid direction. He’s as observant as his protagonist and, occasionally, just as unreadable.
Kai Luke Brümmer, in a breakout role, gives the kind of seasoned performance we usually see in actors three times his age. (Anthony Hopkins in The Father, say, or, to give a more recent and equally adept example by a young actor, Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name.) He’s silent for large swaths of the film, his eyes guarded and expressive in equal measure. When he meets Dylan Stassen for the first time in the bunker, the subtle glimmer of recognition of meeting a fellow traveler with similar predilections is a moment of clarity for him. How to nurture that connection under difficult circumstances becomes nearly insurmountable. And the drill sergeant — beneath a mustache that screams of ’70s porn — is always sniffing out the weaker recruits to hold them up as examples to the others. These “moffies” are beaten, humiliated and threatened with being shipped off to Ward 22. Hermanus doesn’t explain what happens at Ward 22; he doesn’t need to. No one returns the same from this sanitarium-slash-conversion therapy institution.
Hermanus, who is himself mixed-race (“colored” under the racist Apartheid regime), shows us a surprising, and somewhat amazing, act of empathy just by taking on this subject matter. We understand that the training and actions undertaken by these young men is on the wrong side of history, yet they are not turned into hollow characters to score political points. They’re frightened young men (even the gung-ho jingoists) indoctrinated by dehumanizing racial policies, and Hermanus never lets us forget the shared humanity between predators and prey.
“The book came to me, the producers came to me, they offered me the book and they asked if I wanted to read it,” the director has explained. “My first reaction was, ‘Why do I want to make a film about white men in the ’80s?’ It seemed an odd concept. I thought about it a lot, and we discussed it, and the producers also realized that what they wanted to talk about was trauma. They want to talk about the fact that apartheid is the one thing Africans have in common, no matter what your race is. We all have a relationship with apartheid, and apartheid has many faces. And this is a face of apartheid that is unknown.
“Not every white African during the time of apartheid was invested in apartheid. Many were forced into it to a large degree. If you were a white man you were expected to become a foot soldier of apartheid. So there is another example of our history informing our present, and another way that Africans particularly can understand our collective past. That was how I approached it. And the sexual coming of age of the lead character is another tool to talk about humanity. Homosexuality was a crime, of course, during this time in South Africa so, yes, it was possible for white men to also be enemies of the state, just like every black person.”
As I watched the film, I let myself be misled by what I thought was going to be a blossoming romance against the backdrop of war. The attraction between Nicholas and Dylan is palpable — and hope, though in short supply here, sparks Nicholas to discovery — but the reality of the times is oppressive and pervasive. I was disappointed by the ending, which felt perfunctory and unclear, yet like many great movies, it challenged my assumptions and forced me into rethinking what I had just seen. When Nicholas watches Dylan scratching letters into a church pew with his thumbnail, the words are obscured from our view until later in the film. When they are finally revealed, they are a clue to both Dylan’s state of mind and the basic nature of all that we have just seen. Even birds, he cribs from a song by his namesake, are chained to the sky.