Film recommendation: Moffie

This beautifully made, powerful drama set in apartheid-era South Africa about a young gay man doing military service addresses the dangers of binary thinking, at personal and national levels.

This film is set in the early 1980s in South Africa, when the minority white government was facing conflict on the southern Angolan border while battling the threat of communism and its terror of an uprising by the majority black population. Like all young men over 16, Nicholas must complete two years of compulsory military service to defend the apartheid regime. We follow him during his brutal training and into battle.

It is initially unclear whether Nicholas is gay, or just cut from softer cloth than many of his contemporaries. But when a flicker of understanding between him and the rebellious Stassen develops into something stronger and deeper, Nicholas must keep his head down to avoid the terrifying dangers that will follow anyone perceived to be homosexual. (In apartheid-era South Africa, homosexuality was illegal and gay and lesbian soldiers could be forced by the army to undergo various ‘cures’, including sex reassignment surgery).

The term ‘moffie’ means something like ‘faggot’ but also ‘sissy’ and was used about anyone perceived to fail the expected standards of manhood. As director Oliver Hermanus states, “Every gay man remembers the first time it was weaponised against them. It’s not just about whether you’re gay or straight, it’s used to challenge heterosexual men’s masculinity too. It identifies a lack. It’s a measurement system: are you a man or not?”

Nicholas has an Afrikaans last name, but this is from his resented stepfather rather than his birth father, and one of the first binaries we see is the split between the Afrikaans young men in the training camp and the minority who speak English as their first language. This continues with a nuanced exploration of so many binaries: black/white, gay/straight, Communist/government, let alone the male/female binary.

Women feature little in this world other than in the porn magazines that Nicholas’s father sends him to camp with, as mothers or in fantasy. It is a film about masculinity, quietly signalling that masculinity comes in so many guises, and flattening those variations is dangerous to the state as well as to individual psyches. It reflects moments in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail about Foreign Legion soldiers in Djibouti, but also Top Gun and the moments of unacknowledged homoeroticism in Tom Cruise’s flight school.

In fact, black people don’t feature in this story either, other than a racist interaction between the young conscripts and a local black man, and during battle with Angolan soldiers. This is a story about white South Africa though, interestingly, director Hermanus is himself a coloured man, a different South African minority.

The film leads us to see that all these ‘otherings’ combine to a dangerous, toxic atmosphere where conformity is the goal and anything outside that is perceived as dangerous. The young conscripts are bullied by their sergeant and no deviation is accepted.

Hermanus suspects that the effects of this period of South Africa’s national life are still felt today. “You don’t come out of that situation unaffected. Every white boy aged 16 to 20 was sent into this space – you have to wonder how that relates to the very high levels of gender-based violence in South Africa today.”

As Guy Lodge says in his Variety review, this film is “both a shiver-delicate exploration of unspoken desire and a scarringly brilliant anatomy of white South African masculinity … Just about every shot, every cut, every music cue in “Moffie” is aesthetically considered and thematically connective, yet the film never feels overdetermined or airless: Vast, tacit emotion swims to the surface throughout, up to a coda of such suspended, silently symphonic yearning, it fair takes your breath away. Hermanus’ young ensemble plays it with sensitivity and skill, but this is a director’s triumph first and foremost.”

Moffie can be viewed in the UK on Curzon Home Cinema.

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