According to Moffie director Oliver Hermanus, and a number of leading voices in the country, including President Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa has a problem with toxic masculinity. Figures show that nearly 3,000 ‘femicides’ took place between April 2018 and March 2019, while the number of sexual assaults also rose steeply during the same period. Despite the country’s post-apartheid constitution being the first in the world to offer people protection from discrimination because of their sexual orientation, LGBTQ+-targeted violence remains a huge problem. Hermanus takes this to task through the lens of his coming-of-age gay drama, delving into some of the reasons why his home country appears to have become so plagued with the issue.
Adapted from Andre Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel of the same name, the title translates into an Afrikaans anti-gay slur meaning “faggot” – a term we hear thrown around a lot as closeted teenager, Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) has to undertake his two years of compulsory military service. Set in 1981, while the country was still under the rule of apartheid, we join him as he leaves his family and jumps aboard a train packed with testosterone-filled young white men. If there is any doubt as to what lies ahead, Braam du Toit's disconcerting score makes it abundantly clear this is no camping trip he’s embarking on, but something far more hellish.
The majority of Moffie is set in the brutal confines of Nicholas’ time in the army, the camera semi-permanently trained on his face as he adapts to the harsh reality of his new environment. The hyper-masculinity of army life is forced upon his naive and unsuspecting regiment, the savage moustached drill sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) taking delight in whipping the country’s next generation of homophobes and racists into shape. Those unable to cope with the demanding physicality quickly become targeted and humiliated, while daily verbal and psychological assaults are delivered to everyone without discrimination.
When the boys arrive at camp they are told to forget their past and accept they are now “scabs being made into men”. Not only are they being trained to potentially defend against the threat of communism in neighbouring Angola, but the inbred racism openly displayed by the vast majority of the boys is sharpened even further to uphold the government's minority white rule. Nicholas refrains from doing the same and remains quiet about his sexuality in such an overtly-masculine environment. Even though he becomes attracted to fellow conscript Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), who returns his feelings, there’s no hope of it going any further under such strict conditions. Which, when you take into account the full-on homoeroticism so inherent with life in the military, is cruelly ironic.
Hermanus’ film is a tough and visceral experience in the main, putting you firmly inside the combat boots of a teenage boy being dragged back into an antiquated version of what it means to be a ‘man’. He does a good job of delving into Nicholas’ repressed feelings, in particular a traumatic childhood memory that played a big part in convincing him to conceal his sexuality all his life. Cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay also finds real moments of beauty amongst the inhumanity on display, his crisply shot photography adding a stylish sheen. In doing so he captures the physicality of this group of young men bound together through circumstance, located in close proximity of each other bristling with virile energy.
With that in mind it is a shame that Moffie will not have the opportunity to play in cinemas. While it would hardly have torn up the box office and its lifespan shortened as a result, this is a small scale drama suited to the big screen. There are some issues with how the narrative unfolds, as one or two events feel a little too obviously constructed, but these are nowhere near enough to distract you from the talent of a director who appears to be really finding his stride four films in.
Moffie will be available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from April 24.