Sometimes a movie can challenge us with its title alone.
Such is the case with the new feature from acclaimed filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, a historical drama releasing in select theatres and on VOD platforms April 9. Its single word title is emotionally charged and packed with inescapable associations; provocative, controversial, even triggering, it lets us know before we see a single frame of footage that we’re about to be confronted with some very difficult feelings.
That’s true, at any rate, for audiences in South Africa. Here in the United States, a movie called “Moffie” might easily be confused with a children’s story – which would be a mistake – or overlooked altogether by its own target audience simply because the title means nothing to them. That would arguably be an even bigger mistake.
In its country of origin, “Moffie” needs no clarification. To begin with, it’s already familiar as the title of the book on which it was based, a searing autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe which relates the experiences of a young man conscripted into the South African army to fight in a 1981 border war with Angola. More to the point, though, it’s also an Afrikaans word meaning “weak” or “effeminate” – an ugly piece of derogatory slang for “gay,” roughly equivalent, perhaps, to “faggot” for Americans. That’s enough to tell anyone that the military combat on the surface is not the only kind of conflict going on in Hermanus’ film.
With that in mind, it’s not a spoiler to reveal that the story’s lead character is gay. In any case, it’s something we find out almost right away in Hermanus’ movie (co-written with Jack Sidey), when white South African teenager Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) – about to depart on a compulsory tour of military duty for his country’s Apartheid government – almost comes out to his father during their awkward farewell exchange. He doesn’t quite get the secret out, but it will soon come to haunt him as he is thrust into the dehumanizing world of basic training, a brutal process designed to strip away “weakness” and remold sensitive boys into hardened soldiers. Subjected to daily abuse and humiliation, Nicholas nevertheless gradually manages to fit in with his boisterously masculine fellows – until an unexpected attraction sparks with Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), another young conscript. Under the oppressive homophobia of their military environment, being seen by your mates as a “moffie” can be just as deadly as bullets from the enemy, and the relationship blossoming between them puts them both at risk as much as the war they are there to fight.
Needless to say, Hermanus’ film takes us on a grim journey, and there’s not much respite to be expected within the context of its time and place. Yet thanks to his scrupulously understated attention to emotional detail, he manages to find fleeting moments of tenderness, even joy, in the tension and terror that loom over most of the story – most memorably when Nicholas and Dylan manage to spend a night alone together in a trench, thrilling silently to each other’s touch under the safe cover of darkness, but in many other, less obvious ways throughout. And while their seemingly doomed-before-it-began romance may be at the center of the narrative, it serves to illuminate a bigger story about the effects of living under an authoritarian regime.
In a director’s statement, the filmmaker elaborates on this larger context. “I have never given much thought to the hardships of white South Africans. In my mind, informed by the hardships and struggles of my own coloured parents and their parents before them, all white people in South Africa have had it easy. As a result, I never considered young, gay, white youth living in the ‘80s, never saw them as enemies of the state. This is a ﬁlm about such a youth… coming to terms with his illegality.”
Yet Nicholas and Dylan are not the only ones who get our compassion in “Moffie.” Their fellow grunts – and even their ruthless drill sergeant (Hilton Pelser, in an indelible performance), who torments his charges with near-sociopathic relish – are allowed to emerge as more than mere stereotypes of aggressive masculinity. Thanks to Hermanus’ virtuoso use of subtext and cinematic storytelling, we recognize them as victims, too. And though it might at first seem a questionable choice for a film set during Apartheid to feature so few people of color, their notable absence brings a particular immediacy to the screen when they do appear, wordlessly confronting these young white soldiers with their palpable humanity. It’s one of the most powerful moments in the film, eloquently expressing an uncomfortable truth that haunts post-Apartheid South Africa to this day.
As the filmmaker explains, “There [is] a hidden history of the generation of white men who had to endure the Apartheid propaganda machine… their conscription into the army destroyed them because it forcibly imprinted upon nearly one million white boys a diseased ideology of white supremacy, racial intolerance, and the desire to eradicate homosexuality and communism from South African society.”
It’s impossible for Americans not to hear chilling echoes in that description.
Those unavoidable comparisons, along with its nearly unrelenting doom-and-gloom tone, are enough to make Hermanus’ film a hard sell even to potential viewers not thrown off by its title. Still, its two leads are dreamily attractive enough to be a strong draw for many audiences, giving sensitive performances that make them far more than just another pair of handsome faces – especially Brummer, whose expressive face conveys his character’s complex journey and carries the weight of the film’s story with a minimum of dialogue. Additionally, the movie’s reputation – it accumulated a number of honors on the international festival circuit, including nominations for Venice’s Queer Lion Prize and the Best Picture Award at the London Film Festival – will doubtless be enough to pique the curiosity of hardcore cinema buffs.
For everyone else, it’s a tough call. Hearkening back to a darker era in LGBTQ cinema, “Moffie” offers a bleak portrait of a time and place that held little hope of an open and happy gay life, a far cry from the kind of positive, uplifting queer representation currently in vogue with American audiences. That might – understandably – hit a little too close to home for some. Even so, there’s a transcendent quality to this richly photographed, deeply cinematic romance, a flame of hope burning within it that never quite goes out and ultimately prevents it from becoming a film without hope.
For those with the stomach for it – especially those with a taste for well-crafted filmmaking – that’s more than enough to make it worthy of a place on your watchlist.