In 2009 queer South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus’ debut feature Shirley Adams, which he made while still a student at the prestigious London Film School, premiered in competition at Locarno, with his subsequent film, Beauty (Skoonheid) winning the Queer Palm at the 64th Cannes Film Festival, where it played in the Un Certain Regard competition section. Next, The Endless River became the first South African film to play in the official competition at the Venice Film Festival.
With his BAFTA and Queer Lion-nominated acclaimed fourth feature, Moffie, released in US theaters and on demand on Friday April 9th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Oliver Hermanus about the 1980s Apartheid era set film centred on 16-year-old Nicholas (Kai Luke Brümmer) who has been drafted into the army for mandatory military service. In the midst of dehumanizing combat training reminiscent of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and an environment of toxic masculinity—where being labelled moffie (a derogatory term for effeminate or homosexual) is to be avoided at all costs—Nicholas finds tenderness with a handsome fellow conscript, Stassen (Ryan de Villiers).
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: Congratulations on the film. One of the things I enjoyed about it was those beautiful, rather lyrical sequences where we see the men in the showers or playing volleyball with their shirts off. They don’t feel gratuitous or voyeuristic, but I did detect a sensitive queer male gaze there and I wondered how conscious that was and what your approach to those sequences was?
Oliver Hermanus: “I was very concerned with those moments hijacking the central idea of the film which was the military itself and this generation. I wanted to show the nature of how closely they live together, particularly with the shower scenes, but I also actually ended up using the shower scenes as a way of punctuating their carefreeness. So the first shower scene is very much like a locker room scene; everyone is being very playful, talking, chatting very social, they’re having a seemingly good time. Then the next one is totally different, they’re standing in these lines and they’ve lost their enthusiasm. They’re distracted by a certain kind of terror, and a certain kind of fear and it’s all become very sobering and so the physicality is different and they almost exist in that shower as one single body, or like multiple bodies that are feeling and moving together rhythmically, and they’re not really seeing each other anymore. It’s not as sexualized, I guess.”
“With the scenes where their shirts are off, often those are really moments where we’re inside of Nicholas’ head. I tried to frame those moments not so much as objectifying the male form in a sexualized way, but in a way of appreciating some sort of beauty, some kind of admiration of not necessarily the bodies, but the friendships and these particular people in his life. He’s kind of connecting with himself in a way that was now different. So it was a fine line to be honest, because I really didn’t want the film to get stuck in the weeds of becoming a queer fantasy of men in the military. There are enough porn films that have done that already.”
How about when it came to the love story, which is very powerful but it isn’t particularly physical—though there is one very tender moment—it’s more psychological and unspoken, so what was your approach to showing that on screen?
“Again it was very policed from a script writing point of view. I knew there would never be a sex scene in the film and I really kind of decreed that. I wanted the most intimate moment between them to be so fraught with fear and uncertainty and for that to be the most simple gesture, being just about to kiss, and not even a real kiss, it’s just a peck on the lips. I wanted us to arrive at that moment with a real sense of understanding of what this means and how much of a transgression this is in this context, so that it really does unlock for Nicholas a million things and his mind is suddenly a flutter. And it’s all because of a kiss. I mean, ultimately the most sexual moment of this film is a kiss on the lips, and what I wanted was the challenge of making a kiss be the most erotic thing ever.”
Well you certainly achieved that. Quite a challenge, especially nowadays when we’re kind of bombarded with images of male nudity and sex, but we’re very much with those characters at that time in that situation. I also really like the flashback sequences, which I believe wasn’t in the book but is something you added to the screenplay. Why did you want to give us that insight into Nicholas’ childhood experience?
“I always wanted to have a scene in the film that was kind of like the film itself. The title of the film is related to that scene. It’s the moment that the word is weaponized against him, a word that he doesn’t really know, but you can kind of sense in that flashback that that word is now going to linger, it’s going to change him. This is the moment which I think every gay kid has experienced, the moment that you’re identified in a way that you’re not ready to be identified. So the first reaction is to retreat yourself and to diminish yourself. I wanted to put on screen, that moment that I know so well where that happens, because I think it’s a universal experience for the queer community. So that was the hope of that scene, to be that moment where the shame is planted.”
The film came out around a year ago now in South Africa and I wondered what the reaction has been to it there and what kind of conversations it started?
“People were grateful because it opened and then we went into lockdown, so there was a desire to watch movies and a lot of people watched this movie at home actually. The reaction was very positive overall. It definitely is the kind of work that depending on who you are you’re going to have a different interaction with this film. If you’re a gay man who lived through that time you’ll get to have a very affirming experience of the film, if you’re a younger gay man then it’s sort of an interesting bit of gay history in a way and also a reminder of the liberties and freedoms that we have today. If you were a heterosexual person and you went to the military it’s a very different movie. So it’s an interesting film that way, it operates on different levels for different audience members.”
By James Kleinmann
Moffie opens in select US theaters and on demand Friday April 9th 2021 from IFC Films.
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