After the uproar that followed the release of the critically acclaimed isiXhosa film, InXeba (The Wound) in 2017, you wouldn’t expect another film portraying the stigma loaded on homosexuals to follow so soon. But Moffie – set in 1981 in apartheid, patriarchal, Calvinistic South Africa – has has come at the right time, in the right way, unraveling the shame with which homosexuality was (and is still) regarded by many of our diverse cultures.
The era with which the film deals is also a militant one. The South African Defence Amendment Bill, initially passed on 9 June 1967, which had made military service compulsory for all white males aged 17-65 years old, was in full effect, as the country engaged in a border war in Angola, which had recently gained independence. Its new communist government was providing support to South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO), which was fighting for independence. The young conscripted men faced the very real possibility of severe injury or death, as well as months away from home in a “bush war” where their adversaries employed guerrilla tactics and operated not as a cohesive military entity, but as groups of insurgents scattered around vast areas of inhospitable territory. About 2 300 young South African men (including a large number of blacks tasked with “unofficial”, but crucial roles, such as tracking, food preparation, setting up camps and tending to the injured) were killed in the Angolan war.
Against this background, Moffie ingeniously and harshly portrays the racism, blind nationalism and machismo with which the young conscripts – particularly the white Afrikaans boys – were sent into battle and expected to defend volk en vaderland against an enemy they knew almost nothing about. In particular, it focuses on young Nicholas van der Swart (played by Kai Luke Brummer), as he leaves home, undergoes basic training and is summarily dispatched to the border, repressing his homosexuality for fear of ridicule and/or assault from his fellow soldiers.
The film is based on André-Carl van der Merwe’s eponymous novel, which explores South Africa’s criminalisation of male homosexuality. Seemingly cathartic, André wrote the book, intent to contribute to a world wherein homosexuals are seen as equals and not treated as second-rate citizens.
Since its release, Moffie has acquired numerous accolades, including the Mermaid Award for the Best LGBTQI-themed film at Greece’s Thessaloniki International Film Festival. A throng of celebrities and media personalities attended the local red-carpet première, as well as the cast, the crew and musicians such as Demi Lee Moore and Tamara Day.
Damian Engelbrecht, star of KykNet’s Boer Soek ‘n Vrou reality show, stressed the importance of the film today. “Although many people knew what was happening back then, I think this is the first time we’re opening up to what gay people, those that served in the army and struggled under apartheid, went through. It’s a story told from a different point of view,” he said.
VIA TV’s Drama Mammas presenter, Louw Breytenbach, said that this is not “yet another apartheid story”, but breaks new ground by revealing other, hidden victims of both that era and the present age, as LGBTQI South Africans continue to face rejection and ridicule by their families and patriarchal communities.
The film’s director, Oliver Hermanus, explained that the crew battled to source authentic trains and cars from the film’s era. He saw the film’s primary theme as that of the shame experienced by a generation of youngsters who were reared, schooled and brutalised with fear and homophobia by their families, society, the police, the church and, of course, the army – the supreme melting pot of young South African manhood. He added that the film’s biggest drawcards were the honesty of its narrative and the quality of its production.
The South African co-producer, Theresa Ryan van Graan, explained that the title of the film is a pejorative Afrikaans term for a gay man. “We’re trying to de-nuclearise the word,” she said, adding that all South Africans should see it, since it contributes powerfully to the discourse it will ignite in the country.
Brummer said that in order to prepare for the role, he asked his father – who was a conscript in the early 1980s – about his time in the army, but mentioned that they had not discussed the stigma borne by homosexuals. Shaun Chad Smit, who plays the informant Van der Merwe – denouncing his gay comrades to win favour from the officers – said that while filming the arduous exercise scenes was difficult, it greatly improved his health and fitness. And Ryan de Villiers – cast as Dylan Stassen, the soldier who awakens Van der Swart’s sexual identity and is later isolated in Ward 22, reserved for homosexuals – remarked that as an actor whose experience had been mainly theatrical, he had learnt a lot about film.
Hilton Pelser, who plays the sadistic and arch-macho Sergeant Brand, said that his character is a complex one who is forced to examine many of his assumptions, but never overcomes them.
The film’s score is melancholic and shots are predominantly close-ups. Many scenes are also shot in total silence, a deliberate strategy which Brummer explained was intended to convey the loneliness of the young gay soldiers in the film and their awkwardness in communicating their fears and needs to each other. “We humans don’t often say what we mean. When a camera captures that, you get the true essence of a human being,” he said. The film concludes with a sense of hope, but no concrete resolution.
As a testimony of the hardship suffered by thousands of young South Africans who, to all intents and purposes, had much in common with their black peers as nominal “enemies of the state”, Moffie is a valuable, powerful and deeply moving document. By exploring apartheid South Africa’s most futile and destructive military conflict, it is also an indictment of a regime bolstered by arrogance, callousness and grotesque ideals of manhood.
- Moffie is currently on circuit at a number of Ster-Kinekor and NuMetro cinemas. Audiences are encouraged to discuss it on various social media platforms using the hashtag #CalledAMoffie.
Images by: Dan Rutland Manners