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South African film maker Oliver Hermanus is a virtuoso storyteller. His latest film, Moffie is achingly beautiful and harrowing. It is a story drawn from archives of Apartheid pain and shame but it is a story which is universal in its imaging of desire, friendship, love; acceptance and the futility of war. 

Moffie – dialect jab

The title, Moffie has been deliberately used to conjure up the pain and shame that has gone hand in hand with the term “Moffie” – a pejorative and virulent South African dialect jab used against people who are gay and/or who are perceived as weak and ineffectual.

Unbridled hate against sexual orientation is certainly key to the film and its baffled and terrified main protagonist- 18-year-old Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer). The film is ultimately a lamentation on being human and being able to find some kind of restorative power and healing through peeling back layers of the uncomfortable, disturbing and sharing stories.

Border wars

The film is set in 1981, when “boys” of 16 and up were conscripted into doing National Service to protect South Africa’s borders from the enemy – Communism.  It was Black Communism “die swart gevaar” [“the black danger”]. The film was inspired and adapted from the novel, Moffie, by André Carl van der Merwe, based on his experiences in the South African Defence Force – which he documented in diaries.

Angola was in the midst of a civil war, fought over many years between the anti-colonialist MPLA and the anti-communist UNITA forces.  The war was effectively a proxy Cold War battleground.  South Africa’s Apartheid government was desperately trying to hold onto what was then South West Africa.  Swapo was fighting for liberation.   In the film, we see Nicholas and his cohort being whipped and flayed into shape during basic training in order to conquer “the enemy’. Although Nicholas is physically sturdy, the sadistic sergeant sniffs out his sexuality (which the young man is battling with) and the consequences are brutal.

The term ‘moffie’ in the milieu of the film, is not just being perceived as sexually off-course. Anyone perceived as ‘weak’ and not ‘male’ enough is game.  I mentioned the film to a friend. I realised that at age 60 he probably had done the army. He has never talked about his experiences. He said that army was “okay”, for him. He added: “If you wore glasses or had pimples or were Jewish, you were picked on.”  I countered that he is Jewish. He said – “ja, but I was physically in shape, so I was okay.”

It was not okay.  Young white men over 16 were forced to do their bit. Many like Nicholas were petrified and others saw it as their duty. They had been indoctrinated by Christian National Education and by their parents. Many saw it as an adventure, to prove their manliness/masculinity and an opportunity to be in the bush, in the great outdoors with their mates, trigger happy, with testosterone on the boil in their young bodies. If you did not prescribe to the template of manliness, like Nicholas, you inevitably became the target of sadists who were holding up the status quo, like the sergeant that we see in the film.

Brutality and conformity

It will be interesting to see the responses of Black South Africans, Namibians and Angolans to this film – depicting the experiences of some young white South African men who were conscripted. On two levels – firstly, ordinary black citizens, on the frontline.  Secondly, and perhaps differently, those who fought in liberation armies, which by many accounts had similar issues of brutality and conformity. 

As far as I can ascertain, there has not been much hard-core engagement in the arts around conscription. I have seen a few theatre productions which have been embellished with a veneer of nostalgia: “Ja, it was bad but we soldiered on.”  Inevitably, the productions have been softened by the soothing reassurance of Esmé Euvrard’s voice. Euvrard was a popular announcer on the Apartheid Era Springbok Radio. On her Sunday afternoon programme, Forces Favourites, her tag line was: Vasbyt/Min Dae. [Hold tight- keep going/There is not long to go.]

In Moffie, we have none of that blunting; taming. It is a cold and hard abyss we are forced to gaze into and experience with Nicholas.

Victim, perpetrator, desire and repression

Feeding into the Moffie landscape of utter devastation is the uncomfortable situation that the white conscripts were perpetrators.  Individuals like Nicholas and others were perceived to be “weak” and they became victims – in many cases with tragic outcomes. However, the bottom line is that the conscripts were fighting the Apartheid regime’s war.

Sure, they had few choices. If you were 16 or over, you got “called up”. You could become a conscientious objector. That usually led to jail. You could go into exile. Easier said than done. Still, we know many so-called liberal whites who gleefully reminisce about the army days being “the best days of their lives”. We get that in the film – the male bonding – as clothes are shed and flesh is baked under the African sun. There is obviously the notion of male desire – flesh brushing flesh but there is also a sense of revelling in the moment – chilling after fighting- and breathing in the air. That is an image that we have from films on Vietnam, from the World Wars. In Moffie, it is tempered in the context of the film and the jagged edge between victim, perpetrator, desire and repression.

Oliver Hermanus is a genius in the way that he has woven the conflicting emotions and issues that go along with conscription in white Apartheid South Africa: Perpetrators, victims; shattered; damaged people. A vivid image near the beginning of the film, depicts the young conscripts on a train. They are hanging out of the window and spitting on a smartly dressed man in a suit, sitting on the platform. He is Black and the young boys heckle him and spew out their hate. They have been brought up to hate. Guess what?  The indoctrination worked.

Nicholas is silent. He watches. This is bystander complicity in a mob of enraged young men who are going to war. It is an utterly heart stopping scene. For me it brings to mind, trains transporting Jews to concentration camps and bystanders on the platform watching. Some of them spat at the transportees. Some passed food though the window. How did the likes of Nicholas; a young man who was vulnerable just watch?

Compliant used to following orders

In an interview with South African stage hypnotist, Andre the Hilarious Hypnotist [aka Andre Grove] some years back, he told me that he honed his craft, while working in The Entertainment Corps in the SADF. There was an ample supply of young men who were willing subjects. He said They were good subjects. They were open to suggestion because of the discipline [in the army]. They were used to following orders.” [The interview is on this website, TheCapeRobyn]. Doctors who worked in the Nazi camps were also just following orders.

I felt sick watching the train scene in Moffie. It is sickening. With the proliferation of male generated violence in South Africa, one has to wonder about the 50 and 60 something white men who were conscripted and the lessons in violence that have been distilled and which dangle, leaving a sour trail.

It is interesting that white men tend to remain shtum about what happened to them in the army and perhaps more importantly how they behaved. We need film makers like Oliver Hermanus to lay it out on the big screen and break through this submissiveness to the past. Remaining quiet is complicity of a different sort. You witnessed it, speak up.

Performances – superlative

Most of the cast are stage actors and they have instilled nuance and gesture into their performances. The stripped back script (a collaboration between Hermanus and Jack Sidey) allows for silences and gaps. It is the un-said; look of longing; hate; shame which tempers this film with heightened emotion which hits one in the gut. Kai Luke Brümmer who is only 27 is remarkable as Nicholas. Brümmer’s birthday is in February, so he was 26 when the film was made.  Moffie is his first feature film. His Nicholas is at times blank, befuddled and at times raging with – everything. A stunner of a performance.

Music and soundtrack – another character in Moffie

The music and soundtrack in Moffie is almost like another character. South African Braam du Toit’s commissioned compositions are interlaced with recordings from music of the 80s and Summer Breeze, a song from the 70s which evokes the anguished childhood memory of Nicholas when he was on holiday with his parents.

Interspersed with stirring compositions by Braam du Toit and the pop songs. there is a soundscape bricolage of sounds; squeak of a door, footsteps, guns being cleaned, swishing of the bush. The music components are stitched together in a jagged dissonance which amplifies the discord in the narrative. I loved the jarring arrangement – from pop to instrumental to soundscape.

Two songs in the sound track are likely to resonate profoundly with South Africans who lived through Apartheid or who heard songs from their parents: Buccaneer by Mcully Workshop and Sugar Man by Rodriguez.

The Buccaneer song – “there’s enough gold to get high on…”

Buccaneer was first released in 1977 by South African group, McCully Workshop. It was a number one hit in SA for 15 weeks.  The townships were in meltdown. But here was this hit song referencing Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, about buccaneers looting gold -or was it really marijuana – Malawi Gold?– at all cost- taking orders. The captain prods them to “dig it up, singing there’s enough gold here to start on, there’s enough gold to get high on”. In the army, anything to get through the days.

Sugar Man- “cause I’m weary of those double games l hear”

The other song which is powerfully used in the film is Sugar Man [off the album Cold Fact], written and released in 1970 by Rodriguez- a musician from Detroit.  For Moffie, the song has been recorded by Rebekah Thompson and produced by Ben Ludik.

Many white liberal South Africans saw Sugar Man and its album, Cold Fact as the soundtrack of their lives. These were songs of yearning, despair; finding escape in drugs, reaching for a better and enhanced, brighter world. There were no liner notes with the vinyl record. Rodriguez was Rodriguez. We didn’t have Google or YouTube. Years later, Rodriguez was tracked down – he was blue-collar construction worker from Detroit. The album was a mega hit in South Africa and had some success in Australia. Rodriguez had no idea that he was famous and he did not recover royalties. The story was the subject of the award winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. [2012, directed by Malik Bendjelloul]

Stand out – technical

Moffie is a magnificently imaged and shot film. Intensely tight in its narrative, technically speaking, the film is a triumph. The sound mix and colour grade is impeccable. Even the subtitles have been brilliantly laid out. The dialogue is in Afrikaans and English. Often with subtitles, one cannot read bits because words fade out over a light or dark background. Each subtitle in Moffie has been crafted and can be read.

Moffie is immersive, raw and tender.

Photo Credit: Brendan Croft

Moffie – film credits include

Director: Oliver Hermanus

Cast: Includes: Kai Luke Brümmer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Michael Kirch, Wynand Ferreira, Rikus Terblanche, Shaun Chad Smit, and Hendrik Nieuwoudt

Screenplay: Oliver Hermanus and Jack Sidey – adapted from the book by André Carl van de Merwe

Music: Braam du Toit

Cinematography: Jamie Ramsay

Editors: Allain Dessauvage and George Hanmer

Language: English and Afrikaans with English subtitles

Production company:  Portobello Productions.

Producers: Eric Abraham, Thérèsa Ryan and Jack Sidey

Age advisory: 18 DLNPSV

Film/ travel advisory- Moffie

Moffie is now available for live streaming via this link: www.moffiefilm.com/stream Tickets: R150 per viewing.

❌ Moffie screenings 2020– the planned national screenings postponed because of Covid-19 lockdown.

❌ Cape Town and surrounds: see https://www.moffiefilm.com/tickets

Venues include:

Fugard Theatre Bioscope: March 15 – 29, Tuesday to Sunday at 3pm, 7pm and 9pm. Tickets: R110. Bookings: Through the Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or online at www.thefugard.com

The Labia in Gardens: from March 20 at 8pm Tickets R60.  Bookings: www.webticket.co.za

Note: Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront is currently closed for renovations [March 2020].

Other Cape screenings: Nu Metro, Ster Kinekor and other venues.

Out of Cape Town: Gauteng, Eastern Cape [Port Elizabeth], KZN, Gauteng, Namibia. See  https://www.moffiefilm.com/tickets

USA, UK, Europe: Watch this space