As writer-director Oliver Hermanus’ Moffie opens in Apartheid South Africa in 1981, Nicholas (Kai Luke Brümmer) has just turned 16 making him, along with all other white men of his age, eligible for mandatory military service at a time when the country is engaged in a military operation at the border with Soviet-backed Angola in a bid “to stop the spread of Communism”.
With the unsettling sound of hesitantly plucked strings on composer Braam du Toit’s score, evoking uncertainty, Nicholas is preoccupied by what lies ahead as he sits through a farewell dinner party being thrown for him by his proud mother (Barbara-Marié Immelman). His stepfather (Remano De Beer) makes an insensitive joke about him coming back in one piece, laughing uproariously, while his father (Michael Kirch) gifts him a straight porn magazine—”for ammunition”—advising him to “show them what you’re made of”. For the adults in his life, him going into the army is a rite of passage, he’s becoming a man. For Nicholas the prospect is less about the symbolism and more about the reality he faces. When his mother asks him where he’s been at one point during the evening, he jokes that he’s been planning his escape, but as we see the lone figure running away from the camera into the pitch black darkness of the night (reminiscent of Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin) that seems exactly what he’d like to do. With stunning cinematography by Jamie D. Ramsay, the film quickly establishes itself as one of eloquent, unpretentious poetic beauty. There’s no escape from the inevitability of his future though, and Nicholas is soon packed onto a train with his fellow conscripts, as we see a stunning aerial shot of the locomotive propelling these young lives forward, while du Toit’s score picks up its intensity.
Although Hermanus’ film centres on an aspect of the young white male experience during Apartheid (with rare but searingly impactful moments where they encounter Black lives) it does so without victimising or excusing their behaviour, instead it becomes a broader exploration of the brutality and dehumanization of this kind of military training and the measures that a government can take to control the minds of its population, as we see them further indoctrinated.
“You scabs are now property of the South African government” the young men are told in Afrikaans by the fiery, palpably angry, Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) who is not just strict with the men, but mercilessly severe and exceptionally cruel at times in scenes that call to mind Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. Pelser is utterly captivating in the role, bringing depth and nuance to what could have been a two dimensional menace. A product of military training himself of course, despite his questionable means, in his mind the torturous conditions he inflicts on the men is likely just his method of toughening them up for the harshness of military combat. Though it’s hard not to perceive him getting a perverse sense of satisfaction from his methods. His approach is to desensitize the men, finding a way to humiliate each of them, immediately hurling homophobic abuse at them on arrival, telling them that “faggotry” is linked to communism and the behaviour of the enemy.
As the young men are gradually broken down by their training sergeant, after a particularly brutal episode we see them standing silently, motionless, reflecting their reeling psychological state, contrasted with an earlier more lively and boisterous shower scene, conveying their carefree youthful energy and male bravado.
The training scenes are uncomfortable, excruciating at times, so moments of real tenderness and human connection burn bright in the film, such as when Nicholas and a fellow conscript, Sachs (Matthew Vey), are sitting outside tending to their weapons and begin to sing a few lines of Rodriguez’ Sugar Man together. A gentle, touching scene that’s echoed in the beautifully haunting cover of the song by Rebekah Thompson and Ben Ludik that plays over the end credits.
As Nicholas settles into the dormitory in the barracks, the word “moffie”—translated as “faggot” in the film’s subtitles, essentially a derogatory word combining effeminate and homosexual—is weaponized against him by one of his fellow trainees. Later in the film two conscripts, Baxter (Cody Mountain) and Hilton (Luke Tyler), are made examples of, held up as “godless animals” because they were apparently discovered in the same toilet stall together. As part of their punishment they are disgraced and reviled by the rest of the men who are ordered to stand in line and condemningly chant “moffies” at them, before the pair are sent to the notorious psychiatric Ward 22 for a form of conversion therapy.
It is in this context that Nicholas’ burgeoning sexuality sees him form a deep connection with the handsome and charming trainee he’s sharing a dormitory with, Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers). In one exquisitely shot and edited sequence, we are with Stassen and Nicholas in the trench that they have been forced to dig and sleep in overnight during a rainstorm. Lying closely next to one another, Stassen gently touches Nicholas’ face, in a heart-pounding, emotionally potent romantic moment. Later, following a brief kiss, Nicholas is floating on air as we hear a harp on the soundtrack before the warmth of Seals and Crofts’ Summer Breeze drifts us back in time to the childhood summer when Nicholas was first branded a “moffie” by an adult stranger. Behaviour that would likely be joked about or rewarded in a heterosexual boy by the adult men around him, is instead called out as unnatural and the incident likely marks the beginnings of Nicholas’ sense of shame for his emerging feelings, just for being himself. It’s a powerfully resonant sequence—that wasn’t in André Carl van der Merwe’s semi-autobiographical novel upon which the film is based—particularly as it is juxtaposed with the elation of his kiss with Stassen, and the joy we see in both young men’s eyes.
For much of the film the colour palette is made of up of rather muted, autumnal, camouflage tones (sequences with bursts of colour becoming hugely impactful) with striking use of natural light, many outdoor scenes are shot at sunrise or twilight, with the trainee soldiers often almost in silhouette. These beautifully composed shots have a painterly quality yet are never indulgent or stray from a narrative or emotional purpose. The camera is frequently placed in the midst of the men, immersing us in the training, or in their barracks dorm, so it never feels like we are distant onlookers.
Although the film was shot digitally on an Alexa Mini, there is a filmic look to the texture and colour grading that helps establish the period. Without much dialogue we are often given access to Nicholas’ inner-life through closeups of Brümmer’s beautifully expressive face, as he’s not only coping with the strains of the harsh environment, but also the inner struggle between self-acceptance and conditioned internalised-homophobia. Giving an engagingly rich yet understated tour-de-force as Nicholas, Brümmer is the compelling emotional core of the film, while the entire young ensemble cast delivering strong, exceptionally natural and convincing work.
A fascinating and insightful exploration of the experience of these men in a specific time and place, Moffie is thematically rich, examining the strands of toxic masculinity and its formation; equally profound and poignant taken as a military film, as it is a queer narrative. Well-paced, tonally varied, it is a masterful work of poetic beauty, intense power, and emotional potency. One of those rare cases where every filmmaking element comes together flawlessly to form an exquisite whole, Moffie is a stunning achievement.
By James Kleinmann
Moffie is currently playing in select US theaters and available on demand from IFC Films.