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  • Writer's pictureBen Turner

Moffie *****

Starring: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser

Director: Oliver Hermanus

Country: South Africa

Moffie was the toast of last year’s festival circuit, with praise universally piled onto the apartheid military drama from acclaimed director Oliver Hermanus (Shirley Adams, The Endless River and Queer Palm-winning Beauty). Although poised for a cinema release this month, the arrival of COVID-19 has meant its release will now be accessible from home on demand, released by Artificial Eye via Curzon. An adaptation of the autobiographical novel of the same name by André Carl van der Merwe, the title is an offensive Afrikaans word, meaning the same – and carrying the same weight – as the word “faggot”.

Nicholas (Brummer) is a white teenager in 1980s South Africa. War has broken out with Angola and all young men over the age of sixteen have to be conscripted to serve in the South African Defence Force (SADF) for two years by law to defend the apartheid government. Immediately after his sixteenth birthday he is sent to train, where he is overwhelmed by the machismo world of dog-eat-dog showmanship as well as the extraordinarily explicit contempt for both people of colour and gays. While the other recruits revel in their membership of the dominant hegemony, Nicholas is aware that his compliance is pretence, knowing that he too is an “other”.

Meeting Dylan (de Villiers), a recruit with whom he forms an instant connection, he realises that keeping his head down might not be possible or even what he wants. Their relationship develops, but in such a hostile environment, their bond is impossible to maintain.

This film is a very different animal than it first appears. Yes, there is a relationship at its heart, but really it’s the story of Nicholas’ personal awakening as he suffers through two traumatic years. He arrives at the camp a timid and molly-coddled boy, with the promise from his father that the training will make him “a man”. And it does, just not in the way he had intended. Like many military films, we see the new recruit running the gauntlet and being mentally and physically broken down by his superiors. The bravado of the other recruits is shown to be their coping mechanisms; the only way to cope with what they’re being put through is by exerting control over whatever they can. But while Nicholas is present, he is not a participant and simply endures.

Dylan is different. He is a much stronger self-assured man, yet his journey is much rockier than his lover’s. And the man he becomes is much different indeed. I guarantee the final scene will have you screaming at him on your screen.

This is a perfectly judged film, with its tone faultlessly judged. The narrative is drenched with conflict, prejudice and endurance, but in a gloriously understated performance from Kai Luke Brummer we see a steely determination to survive, whatever the costs. There are flashbacks to childhood trauma, which inform his behaviour today, both of which are underscored by a sometimes painful discordant soundtrack that leaves the frame apprehensive and uneasy. And when all the bluster of the unit is finally called into action, the reality is a cluster of scared boys fighting a war they have nothing to do with.

Less than a year since the release of Kanarie, another movie about a gay youth in the SADF, Moffie manages to capture a bleak authenticity to the hyper-masculinised aggression under apartheid. The former was much lighter in tone, but Moffie gives a voice to a survivor of this era, where sexuality was just as big of an issue as race, but played out in different ways. Just as Bent perfectly explored sexuality during the Holocaust, Hermanus adeptly spotlights the reality of being gay in a difficult time without ever undermining the bigger picture.



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