Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie is getting rave reviews and it’s understandable, this South African film hits at the intersection of homophobia, immature masculinity and racist culture. Based on André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical story about his time in the military during Apartheid, Moffie features an outstanding cast of young actors and some wonderful visuals.
The film begins in 1981 as young Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is about to start his National Service to help defend South Africa against communism and “die swart gevaar” – the black danger. A wide-eyed, sensitive kid is thrown into a world of unbridled insecure masculinity. On the train he makes friends with Sachs (Matthew Vey) an outsider of sorts who stands apart from the other boys all jostling to prove their manhood. As they head to their training camp, the trainload of young men stops by a station where a single black man is sitting patiently on a bench. The white boys hurl abuse, and other things, while the poor man simply takes it. This is the world they have grown up in.
The military training is dehumanising and toxic as the army tries to turn these boys into ‘men’ and to stamp out any trace of effeminate or ‘weak’ behaviour. They are screamed at and told not to be “moffies” (faggots). Nick watches as two homosexuals are caught and beaten. The boys are pushed to their physical and mental limits.
In the harsh world of the army, a simple gentle touch has an erotic charge, and when Nick is forced to share a trench with gay trainee Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) their simple moment of connection has enough emotional weight to propel the rest of the film.
One thing Hermanus excels at is not judging the boys Nick is surrounded by. They are brash, violent and homophobic, but also sympathetically portrayed; they are human, essentially children forced to fight in a war they have been indoctrinated to believe in. The pressures of training affect them all and not all of them make it through. In what may be the best cinematic volleyball scene since Top Gun, things take a sharp, horrendous turn.
Nick is an observer of a character, his calm façade hides an active mind, and Brummer keeps him active despite his cerebral nature. Nick is always afraid, but only rarely shows it. In one moment, when he is forced to physically attack Stassen, you can see each conflicting emotion pass across his face. It is a wonderful, empathetic performance.
He is supported by a cast of young actors who each bring a fully-rounded energy to their roles. De Villiers’ Stassen has a calm strength to him. His scenes are filled with such pathos, especially toward the film’s climax, it brought tears to my eyes. Vey’s Sachs has a sharp mind and fortitude that is constantly tested and broken by the army. Even Hilton Pelser’s asshole Sergeant has a depth you don’t initially expect.
Moffie has the energy of Lord of the Flies, youth out of control mixed with a touch of Joel Schumacher’s Tigerland. It is an outstanding film and one this year’s BFI LFF’s true highlights.
By Chad Armstrong