Moffie is an Afrikaans slang term that roughly translates into English as “faggot”. In the latest film from director Oliver Hermanus, there aren’t many chances to grab fresh air before it’s once again casually hurled out as an insult, designed to demean “communist” opponents, or shame gay men to stay in the closet and avoid living a life detrimental to the supposedly christian values of Apartheid-era South Africa. Set in a gruelling military environment in the early 1980’s, Hermanus’ film is his most brutal to date, unflinchingly depicting a toxic, masculine regime that serves only to indoctrinate the nation’s youth into a repugnant racist, homophobic ideology.
Structurally, Moffie recalls Full Metal Jacket in how the first half documents military training (with a verbally abusive officer to boot), with the second flashing forward to the young soldiers being sent to the front line. But Kubrick’s Vietnam effort is practically a calming, therapeutic viewing experience when placed next to Moffie, the most articulate depiction of festering homophobia in apartheid-era South Africa ever seen on film. It does, admittedly, pull some punches, not examining the abhorrent racism of the apartheid regime with a similar scrutiny. But the other forms of prejudice widespread during the era were never as widely reported internationally, and Hermanus manages to highlight the casual nature of apartheid-era homophobia in the most brutal way possible. After watching Moffie, you’ll likely feel that you’ve also lived through it.
The year is 1981. Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) has recently turned 18, and has been conscripted into military service by the Apartheid Government, sent for intense training before being moved to the Angolan border on an “anti-communist” mission. As Nicholas has English heritage, only taking the surname of his stepfather to blend in, he’s naturally viewed with suspicion by the other conscripted boys he’s staying with – and does his best to stay silent, so as to not reveal his own sexuality. This gets complicated when he starts getting close to Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), a fellow squad member he starts developing feelings for, in the middle of an environment where other “moffies” have been publicly beaten and punished to teach the whole squad a lesson.
There are few moments of lightness in Moffie. Even a sequence that seems like an ironic wink at the homophobic military mindset, an intensely homoerotic volleyball scene that recalls Top Gun, is undercut by a single shot that proves there is no space to escape from the inherent toxic masculinity. Hermanus doesn’t exactly specialise in levity; his most well known film prior to Moffie, 2011’s Beauty (Skoonheid) , similarly examined a self-loathing homophobia disguising itself as the most abhorrent, performative masculinity imaginable. But Moffie takes that brutality to another level entirely, largely due to the constant bellowing from Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser). The archetype of the sociopathic military chief has long been established, but rarely has it felt as visceral as it does here. He’s one of the most evil figures in recent cinematic memory, constantly yelling vile racist, homophobic and ableist bile with a troubling casualness – and never showing any signs of remorse, as he’s so deeply bought into the vile apartheid belief system.
When we do get moments of tenderness, such as a night in the trenches between Nicholas and Stassen, they feel every bit as stressful as the military endurance tests. There is no conceivable happy ending for gay men in this environment, and as Hermanus digs deeper into Nicholas’ past (including the film’s best sequence, a harrowing flashback to a particularly painful childhood holiday), the psychological toll of remaining in the closet in such an environment becomes all the more apparent. Kai Luke Brummer’s performance is understated, accurately reflecting a character who is doing all he can to survive the conscription without being noticed for what he is. He’s hardly a blank slate of a protagonist, but what Brummer does is deliberately portray him as one, even as the wider world keeps trying to shake him out of his introverted shell.
Moffie is the most brutal film I’ve seen from this year’s BFI London Film Festival lineup. It’s not perfect, but the visceral impact of its depiction of homophobia during this era cannot be understated.