The word moffie loosely translates to faggot. The disgusting slur rolls an effeminate pair of effs in a gay-bashing slap. The Afrikaans word has a particular sting in Moffie, a stunningly potent film set in 1981 South Africa. Director Oliver Hermanus boldly looks at his country’s apartheid years through the era’s compulsory military service. Each time the word “moffie” punctuates the soundtrack, it stings—and soldiers in the film say it a lot. Moffie observes a young white recruit, Nicholas (Kai Luke Brümmer), enduring his two years of training and service. During this time, he confronts his sexuality amid the testosterone-fuelled training fields and communal showers saturated with burly men. Despite training to enforce for a racist policy, Nicholas faces the apartheid within. This is a land where invisibility equals survival. Moffie is a visceral portrait of internalised homophobia.
The compulsory service is an oddly masculine rite of passage. Nicholas’s dad (his parents are divorced) proudly gifts him a wank mag when saying farewell. It’s like an awkwardly seedy graduation gift. Nicholas shifts uncomfortably upon receiving it, but the porno comes in handy (no pun intended) later. His larger family, meanwhile, celebrates Nicholas’s departure for the field. This process seems like sending boys into the jungle to become men.
As Nicholas makes his way to training camp and endures the dehumanizing process that turns men into machines, he observes evidence of his country’s failings. Boys on the train grunt like gorillas when they see a Black man on the platform. They harass and belittle him, yet as Nicholas watches, abstaining from the provocation but not denouncing it, either, the man stoically holds his ground. The boys on the train won’t see such a flicker of humanity for months to come.
“Sh**ting Tiffany Cufflinks”
Once in the barracks, Moffie observes the usual branding of the military machine. Electric razors shear stylish ’dos into crew cuts. Recruits strip down, line-up, and weigh in. These boys are built and bred to hate the men of neighbouring Angola, just like apartheid teaches them to detest the Blacks. Moffie sees through Nicholas’s eyes how the training regime is less a process of bulking-up the men and strengthening them physically. It’s a mental retooling exercise in which ornery drill sergeants teach them to fear difference.
So ensues the inevitable homophobia as the burly white men position sexuality—not simply homosexuality but perceived “manliness”—as a marker between bulls and calves. Language, too, because something of a divider as it connotes class and privilege. The boys prove themselves physically, as recruits in these camps always do. They punch one another in the face, slowly recognizing their equals before pummelling them to save their own skin.
Of Beach Rats and Beau Travail
Such a visceral, self-hating slug meets the face of Dylan (Ryan de Villiers). He’s one cadet whom the other rookies quickly peg as a moffie. Nicholas, now highly attune to the pleasure of seeing so many sweaty bodies in action, recognizes that he can use the other boys to protect himself. It’s the same backwards policy that keeps apartheid in action: self-generated fear.
Hermanus displays an exquisite eye for Moffie’s twofold interrogation of the body politic. As a gay man of colour, he is ultimately an outsider looking in at a colonial regime. However, Moffie’s gaze is quite striking. This brooding drama has echoes of The Hurt Locker with its deconstruction of masculinity in wartime. It evokes the toxic machismo of the boot camps in Full Metal Jacket and the violently internalised violence of Beach Rats. Most stirringly, there are ample nods to the homoeroticism of Beau Travail as the camera lingers on the bodies of well-toned cadets.
Hermanus’s approach is not derivative, but rather well informed. Moffie verses itself in ways of seeing and in noting the ways in which one is perceived. It goes back to advice that Nicholas receives from a fellow “moffie,” whose gaydar is finely attuned: just be invisible for his own safety. Viewed through a critical and detached view, Moffie witnesses a struggle for humanity on the battlefield. Cinematographer Jamie Ramsay captures the dizzying grittiness and physicality of the training gap with pulsating vigour. On one hand, this environment could turn anybody gay; alternatively, Nicholas survives only by turning the violence of his training upon himself.
Brümmer a Breakthrough
So too does it find a star in Brümmer, who gives a conspicuous performance of internalised anguish. Moffie sees Nicholas wrestle with the hardening that training demands, yet the softening that happens inside as he gradually accepts how he identifies with Dylan. As Nicholas remains closed and guarded, though, Moffie simmers with the anguish of internalised shame and self-hate. It’s a smouldering performance in a restrained power-keg of a movie. This moody and brooding film announces a new talent.
The tension inevitably pops on the battlefield, but the true release comes later. Nicholas and Dylan flirt with future romance during their training by promising to take a trip to the beach. Nicholas has never been, yet, as a jarring flashback to a traumatic episode reveals, his internalised homophobia is rooted in pools and change rooms. To go to the beach is to wash himself anew, but it’s also a public space when acts between men are still illegal in South Africa. The most open and freeing space in Moffie is where Nicholas and Dylan could be most vulnerable. Even in the safety of water, shame and self-censorship swim alongside percolating desire.
However, there’s no tragedy here despite the absence of a happy ending. Hermanus ends the film on the beach as Nicholas has a moment of clarity and Brümmer lets the character weigh the implications of his actions. It’s like watching the sunrise.
Moffie is available to rent on AppleTV on April 9th, and will be available this summer on IFC Films Unlimited.