Political regimes built on segregation and hate are multi-faceted in their control, violence and indoctrination. These regimes force a sense of both internal and external discrimination based on their ideology. They use a divide and conquer governance model to ensure people who do not fit their idealised mould are targeted. These regimes have existed throughout human history, from the Nazi persecution and murder of Germans who dared to identify as LGBTQ+ to the public hangings of young gay men in Iran. This persecution and control are not always visible to outsiders as it lurks beneath the surface, without scrutiny. This was the case for many LGBTQ+ people during the Apartheid regime in South Africa, and here Oliver Hermanus new film Moffie reflects this oppression to stunning effect.
Based on the 2006 novel by André Carl van der Merwe, the word Moffie is the Afrikaans word for faggot, which still instils strong feelings and emotions across cultures. Words can, of course, carry huge weight in the persecution of the individual, group or community. In South Africa, the label Moffie was used to diminish the perceived masculinity of the individual. At the same time, it labelled individuals and groups as deviant or perverted in a society built on toxic perceptions of masculinity.
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By the late 1980s, the Apartheid regime in South Africa had begun to face broader global scrutiny as international campaigns to boycott South African goods and services grew in strength. However, despite this, P.W Botha’s Nationalist Party held firm in elections allowing the apartheid regime to continue its iron grip. Meanwhile, fears of a communist invasion led to a continued border War against Namibia, Zambia, and Angola. Here the government would conscript all-white South African men over 16 to their cause, with national service camps designed to preserve a slowly faltering view of white superiority.
We meet Nick (Kai Luke Brummer), a sensitive young man torn from his family home to undertake his military service within this landscape of internal division and external border conflict. Nick’s train journey to the military camp he will call home is a rough and debauched ride that rages with toxic masculinity, casual racism and bravado. But as Nick tries to hide away from the behaviour surrounding him, he meets Sachs (Matthew Vey). Here Nick finds a soul mate as both boys offer each other support before reaching their final destination, a military training camp that thrives on fear and control.
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As Nick settles into camp life, he is greeted with nothing but pain, hiding his sexuality due to the fear of being labelled a moffie and transferred to the feared ward 22. This feared ward was a reality for men in South African history, as they were experimented upon, drugged and forced to undergo surgery. Here, Nick witnesses boys taken to the ward, never to return; his security and safety secured through silence.
Hermanus film may focus on the experience of white young men, but the racism and bigotry of Apartheid are never far from the surface of each scene. Here black people and LGBTQ+ people are treated as mere objects of ridicule, persecution and hate. This creates a fascinating and detailed discussion on the interface between racism, homophobia and xenophobia inherent in the South African state during the 1980s—the film’s narrative a layered and complex dissection of fear, control and oppression.
Meanwhile, performances are truly outstanding as we witness each boy’s journey from teenager to adult in a hostile and controlling environment. Here Kai Luke Brummer (Nick) provides the film’s standout performance, demonstrating the emotional cost of fear, restraint, and suppressed desire through a great character study. But it is in the direction of Hermanus that Moffie shines. Here Hermanus combines the horror of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket with military service’s closed and secret homoeroticism. The result is a film that delivers both a powerful and emotional viewing experience as it reflects the complex interface between oppression and freedom within states built on division and hate.
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Moffie is available to rent now on Curzon Home Cinema