REVIEW: Moffie [2020]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 104 minutes
    Release Date: March 13th, 2020 (South Africa) / April 9th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: IFC Films
    Director(s): Oliver Hermanus
    Writer(s): Oliver Hermanus & Jack Sidey / André Carl van der Merwe (novel)

You are no longer someone.

There’s no better propaganda machine than the military. But while that institution generally wields its power upon those who willingly embrace its messaging, not every country relies on volunteers to fill their ranks. For countries like South Africa during Apartheid, conscription became a way to retain white minority control. Why? Because it ensured that every able white male would receive a steady dose of its racist and bigoted rhetoric for at least two years. Rather than preach to the choir, the Afrikaners could brainwash every new generation of young boys into becoming toxically masculine monsters through fearmongering of both the “other” they fought (Black men and women) and the “other” they might be themselves (homosexuals). The military loves to sell indoctrination as a battle for protection.

That’s the backdrop to André Carl van der Merwe‘s autobiographical novel Moffie and what attracted Cape Town-native Oliver Hermanus to direct and co-adapt with Jack Sidey. More than just destroy the lives and families of Black residents, Apartheid also destroyed those of some white residents too. It forced anyone who thought and/or lived differently than the regime to either suppress those instincts or dismantle them completely as a means for survival. Whether its politics (Matthew Vey‘s Sachs is drinking away his sorrows on the train ride to boot camp because he knows the immoral acts he’s about to be ordered to commit against an oppressed people) or sexuality (Kai Luke Brummer‘s Nicholas is reconciling his identity against a nation that despises him), these outsiders are fed to wolves.

And Hermanus pulls no punches when it comes to Afrikaner brutality. He shows the hate spewed by boys who’ve already embraced their superiority at home courtesy of teenaged conscripts yelling profanities at a Black man trying to mind his own business before getting pummeled by thrown food. We hear their government-sanctioned, gang-like vitriol hit its target while Nicholas and Sachs are left peering out their windows with silent shame knowing there’s nothing they can do to stop it. Add a drill sergeant (Hilton Pelser) who provides the bite to go along with Full Metal Jacket‘s Gny. Sgt. Hartman’s bark and it’s a wonder we’re not hearing guns go off in the distance every hour as those who can’t take his abuse escape the only way they know how.

Not to say we won’t hear a couple—intentional or accidental once alcohol and psychological turmoil enter the mix. That the boys won’t see much actual action on the border (fighting against the Communist-backed forces of Angola) is thus the point since the army’s motivation is to send them home and maintain a way of life that bolsters their race’s control. Anyone who dares defy that image is berated and singled out or sent to the “looney bin” (as Ward 22 has come to be known) so they can stay out of the way in a drugged-out stupor until their term is complete. Boys like Nicholas must therefore keep their heads down, steel themselves to a fate they cannot combat, and fall prey to the inevitable emotional reckoning.

Doing so isn’t going to be easy, though, and Braam du Toit‘s score and Jamie Ramsay‘s in-close cinematography augment the intensely claustrophobic existence experienced as property of the regime. The narrative utilizes subtlety so that performances and aesthetic can lead us where Hermanus wants us to go—like with an unprompted flashback that provides context without shoving it down our throats. We learn more from expressions and reactions to the aftermath of events than we would watching those events themselves because the impetus behind the film is more about how young men like Nicholas cope with their secrets than how the establishment drives them out. What does another boys’ punishment mean for him? How does potential romance (with Ryan de Villiers‘ Stassen) alter his ability to stay hidden?

We’re constantly floating just outside Nicholas’ head as he reconciles past suffering and current trauma to begin to discover where his levels of complicity and rebellion stand. He’s walking a tight-rope the entire time as a result—neither alone in his reasons nor his struggle. Because even though Sachs isn’t gay (or necessarily knows that Nicholas is), he is battling the same sense of uncertainty and fear as far as becoming something he’s not against his will. It’s one thing to make snide remarks in opposition to the company line during a training video, but another to find himself on the frontlines with a gun in his hand and the inability to know how far he’s supposed to take things when his playing a part he doesn’t embrace.

Those quick to start a fight or sexualize women aren’t necessarily ready for what’s coming either. Being a “red-blooded male” doesn’t guarantee the emotional or psychological strength to hold another person’s life in your hands based on a truth your insular bubble of an adolescence has only been told is real. Where’s the line between duty and malice? How about excitement and anxiety? These are children being told to kill on the basis of a social construct they’re born into as pawns, so it shouldn’t be surprising when all hell breaks loose the moment training turns into war. Talking the talk only gets you so far when more pain inevitably comes from pulling the trigger to back it up than does getting hit because you couldn’t.

Don’t therefore expect easy answers or bow-tied conclusions. Boys thrown into the fire to become men don’t simply revert back to who they were after the dust settles. The experience leaves a mark to work its way into actions until it becomes who you are. Maybe Nicholas will be able to flip the switch as those who’ve persecuted him pat him on the back upon returning home or maybe he won’t. Maybe those who were transformed can shake the hazy reeducation away once free from the military’s clutches or maybe any glimpse of who they were only triggers the nightmarish memories of what happened when they did then. As Hermanus states: this is a film about the making of South African men. This is the damage already done.

[1] Kai Luke Brummer as “Nicholas” in Oliver Hermanus’ MOFFIE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[2] Kai Luke Brummer as “Nicholas” in Oliver Hermanus’ MOFFIE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.
[3] Matthew Vey as “Michael” and Kai Luke Brummer as “Nicholas” in Oliver Hermanus’ MOFFIE. Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release.

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