Political regimes built on segregation and hate are multi-faceted in their use of control, violence and indoctrination. Often forcing both internal and external discrimination and oppression based on an ideology that fears any difference. In turn, using divide and conquer governance, in ensuring people who do not fit their idealised mould are targeted whether they be internal or external to the state. This has been the case throughout human history. From the persecution and murder of Germans daring to identify as LGBTQ during the Nazi regime through to the public hangings of young gay men in Iran. However, this internalised persecution and control is not always visible. Often lurking beneath the surface, without public scrutiny. And this was particularly the case in the experience of LGBTQ people during Apartheid in South Africa. With Oliver Hermanus’ new film Moffie reflecting this hidden costs of this oppression to stunning effect.
Based on the 2006 novel by André Carl van der Merwe, Moffie is the Afrikaans word for “faggot”. A word that still instils strong feelings and emotions in all cultures. While also remaining largely unreclaimed by the LGBTQ community. Words can carry huge weight in individual persecution, and in South Africa, the label of “Moffie” was a tool for diminishing someones perceived masculinity. While equally labelling them as a deviant or pervert in a society built on toxic perceptions of masculinity. And it is within the use of this damaging and hateful word and the social implications of a singular label that Hermanus’ film provides a powerhouse of social commentary. While in turn reflecting the paranoia and oppression apartheid South Africa thrived upon in keeping its white population under its spell.
Taking place during the early 1980s, just as the Apartheid regime was beginning to come under more scrutiny abroad. With growing international campaigns to boycott South African goods and services. P.W Botha’s Nationalist Party held firm in elections, ensuring the apartheid regime continued to hold an iron grip. While fears of communism and invasion ensured The South African Border War against Namibia, Zambia, and Angola continued. With the government conscripting all white young men aged over 16 to the cause. With the countries national service camps designed to preserve a slowly faltering view of white superiority. Alongside ensuring white men continued to fit a damaging mould of perceived masculinity.
It is within this landscape of internal division and external border conflict that we meet Nick (Kai Luke Brummer). A sensitive young man torn from his family home in order to undertake military service. His first experience of what is to come provided through the train journey to the military camp. A rough and debauched journey into the unknown, raging with false masculinity, racism and teenage bravado. However, luckily for Nick, he shares the ride with the equally mellow Sachs (Matthew Vey). Both boys immediately finding common ground in removing themselves from the chaos and testosterone of the other carriages. Providing a brief but welcomed respite before arriving at their final destination. A military training camp that thrives on fear and control.
For Nick, the camp offers nothing but pain, as he hides his own sexuality, his fear cemented by the treatment of two other boys labelled as ‘Moffies’. Including their transfer to feared ‘ward 22’. A real place in South African history, where gay men were often experimented upon, drugged and forced to undergo surgery. However, for Nick, his fear is also tied to his own early teenage experience of homosexual desire. A traumatic event at a local swimming pool haunting his every thought, as he locks his feelings and emotions in a cast iron mental cage. His only brief and nervous expression of love coming from a tender encounter with fellow recruit Stassen (Ryan de Villiers).
As the sadistic training regime leads to real conflict on the border with Angola. Each boy finds their own self-worth, personality and freedom subsumed by the Apartheid forces surrounding them. With their lives, ultimately changed forever by a forced military experience built on indoctrination and control.
Although Hermanus focusses on the experience of white young men. The ever-present racism and bigotry of Apartheid is never far from the surface. As black people are treated as mere objects for persecution and hate. A trait that equally applies to every white person labelled as gay. Creating a fascinating insight into the interface between racism, homophobia and xenophobia inherent in the South African state during the 1980s. Ensuring that the film’s narrative speaks to its audience on multiple levels in representing the fear, control and oppression nationalism generates.
Meanwhile, performances are truly outstanding as we witness each boy travel from teenager to young man in a hostile and controlling environment. While Kai Luke Brummer (Nick) provides a performance of remarkable emotional intelligence. Demonstrating the emotional cost of fear, restraint and suppressed desire with a single glance.
But it is Oliver Hermanus’ direction that genuinely shines, combining the sheer horror of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. With the subtle homoeroticism of military service, in a closed world of toxic homophobia. While equally embedding each scene within both contemporary and classical music that reflects the mood and ambience of Jamie Ramsay’s stunning cinematography. Ultimately providing us with a film that delivers a powerful and emotive viewing experience. One that embeds itself within your thoughts long after the final credits have vanished from view. Reflecting the complex interface between repression and desire and oppression and freedom within states built on division and hate.
Director: Oliver Hermanus