“Moffie” is an Afrikaans slur, used to describe a gay man. For those of us who haven’t grown up hearing it, the term can read almost affectionate, its soft syllables suggesting a sweetness. In reality, there’s violence in the word, spat out with cruelty. This tension pervades the fourth film from Oliver Hermanus, regarded as one of South Africa’s most prominent queer directors. Moffie tells the story of Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a closeted 18-year-old drafted into his mandatory military service in South Africa in 1981, when the country was still in the throes of apartheid. Adapted from André Carl van de Merwe’s novel, Moffie tells a brutal tale with moments of beautiful respite.
Even though the movie ends on a note that’s somewhat hopeful, by virtue of most of the conscripts making it out alive, you can’t help but think of the trauma they will live with—and are likely still living with in real life. After all, the novel is a fictionalized version of van de Merwe’s own life, which he documented in the diaries that he kept as a soldier. The book has been seminal in opening up conversations about the violent legacy of the South African draft, where only white men served under the racist apartheid regime.
Given that South Africa’s compulsory conscription ended in 1993, the film serves as a reminder of those terrible times, and exposes the psychological ruthlessness employed to train young white men with a toxic mixture of white supremacist, nationalist, misogynist and homophobic ideology in the country’s battle against the perceived scourge of communism.
There’s a sense of foreboding right from the opening scene. Nicholas’ family has gathered for a farewell dinner before he goes off for his training. The forced bonhomie is palpable at the gathering, as Nicholas’ mother makes a short toast to her first born.
“Let’s hope he comes back in one piece,” his stepfather shouts in Afrikaans, while his mother and biological father exchange tight smiles. Nicholas doesn’t say much either. His own reluctance for this rite of passage is evident in his diffidence, his hands stuffed in his pockets.
Moments before, his mother called out for him. “What were you doing?” she asked. “Planning my escape,” Nicholas replied, half-jokingly.
As his father bids him goodbye, he hands Nicholas a Playboy-like magazine. “For ammunition,” he says. “If you need it.” As he drives off, he leaves Nicholas illuminated in the headlights. You can’t help but marvel at Nicholas’ beauty—his chiseled face, mop-top and piercing blue eyes—even as you see a flicker of fear pass through him.
All of this happens within the first five minutes of Moffie. The sparse dialogue, accentuated by the tense background score, sets the tone for the emotional onslaught that’s yet to come. Soon Nicholas is on a train full of boorish young white men and military instructors who constantly yell in Afrikaans. He ends up in a compartment with another good-looking teen, Michael Sachs (Matthew Vey). Unlike the other recruits, tousle-haired Michael seems equally disenchanted with his surroundings, and is thankful that Nicholas—despite his Afrikaans-sounding surname—seems pretty normal. We come to learn that Nicholas has had to take on his stepfather’s surname. Nicholas delivers this information with a grim smile, and you can see him set his face like flint for what’s about to come.
Not even having an Afrikaans surname helps when they get to the military camp. The dehumanizing treatment starts as soon as the fresh-faced recruits jump out of the truck. Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) is in charge here, whose dial is turned full-tilt to sadomasochist.
“You scabs are now the property of the South African army,” Brand screams, the very picture of viciousness, with a bristling moustache and jaunty beret angled just so.
The young men are given instructions to strip, and that’s just the beginning of the mental and physical torture. From here on follows a daily routine of misogynistic and homophobic name-calling, alongside a punishing physical regimen. In their break time, the young men are shown white supremacist propaganda films. Any form of dissent—even a murmur of disagreement—is rewarded with added punishment. The whiff of effete behavior brings out the worst in Brand. Relatively tall and agile, Nicholas is able to withstand the ribbing he gets for his Englishness or softness with a eyes-downcast stoicism. And a flashback to his childhood, where Nicholas is publicly shamed at a swimming pool, shows us how he’s learned to avert his eyes.
Despite the constant barrage of terrorizing drills and frat boy behavior, however, there are tender respites—like Nicholas’ connection with his rebellious squadmate, Dylan Stassen (Ryan De Villiers). An earlier incident makes it abundantly clear how dangerous it is to express any sort of affection. As a result, even the smallest gesture of intimacy is fraught with tension. Although the young men, shown in various forms of dress and undress, are strapping soldiers, there’s also a vulnerability to them. You can’t help but silently cheer, even as your heart breaks a little, when Nicholas and Michael break into a muted rendition of “Sugarman,” giggling as they clean their rifles. Despite the army’s best efforts to break the young men, their spirits seem to survive.
Just as you breathe a little easy, it becomes time for Nicholas and his squadron to go for a border tour. This is where, as they say, shit gets real. Even Michael, who has learned to tamp down his musings on Mao and Che, appears a little shell-shocked. Nicholas, meanwhile, broods about the fate of Dylan, who has been sent to the infamous Ward 22 for his behavior.
Despite the heavy load it carries, Moffie is a masterful film. Hermanus and Jack Sidey have co-written a tight script, with stretches of silences that pull you into the internal struggles of its characters. The cinematography by Jamie D Ramsay ranges from languorous shots of the rugged, dusty landscapes where the recruits carry out drills in the harsh sun to the handheld immediacy of Nicholas and his fellow soldiers’ misery. The cast—made up of a mix of high school students, trained actors and non-professionals—manages to conjure up a chapter of South African history that many would like to forget.
Yet, Moffie seems even more relevant today. As you watch authority figures spew out their hateful rhetoric to impressionable young men, the parallels to the current politics of intolerance in various parts of the world are uncanny. With Nicholas as the central character, it transcends typical war movies about military conquests and the brotherhood of soldiers: The bonds formed in Moffie are complicated, and defy neat resolutions. The viewer is left with many more questions than answers. In that sense, this film is a cautionary tale, a reminder of the stakes of possibly losing our collective humanity.
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Writer: Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey
Starring: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Wynand Ferreira, Rikus Terblanche, Shaun Chad Smit, Hendrik Nieuwoudt
Release Date: April 9, 2021
Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, KhabardaarPodcast.com. You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.