“Moffie” – The Danger of Being Gay in 1981 South Africa

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At The Movies With..

Lady Beverly Cohn

Editor-at-Large Worldwide

MOFFIE is a powerful film about a young gay man who is conscripted into the South African Defence Forces (SADF) during the scourge of Apartheid, which is a secondary subject.  To give you a frame of reference, during this period, the punishment for being a homosexual, considered by the army to be subversive, was medical torture.  The “cure” was administered by Dr. Aubrey Levin’s* Aversion Project.  Despite being warned by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that what they were doing was a violation of human rights, the “treatment” for homosexual soldiers was administered at Ward 22 on a military base.  When the aversion “treatment,” didn’t work, surgical procedures were performed to alter their genitals, many of which were botched and sometimes resulted in death. 

MOFFIE, a derogatory Afrikaans term for gay, is masterfully helmed by South African director Oliver Hermanus from the screenplay he wrote with Jack Sidey, adapted from an autobiographical book by André Carl van der.  The protagonist is 18-year-old white South African Nicholas van der Swart, compellingly brought to life by Kai Luke Brummer, who gives a quiet, spellbinding performance.   He, along with other boys his age, have been conscripted to serve in the army for two years to train to fight the border war between South West Africa and Angola.  He is a beautiful, soft-spoken young man, with delicately etched features, and he knows he must be constantly vigilant to guard against being found out.  As a farewell gift, his father, Peet, sympathetically played by Remano De Beer, gives his son a girlie magazine as a good-bye gift.  Although he has never discussed his son’s sexual preference, perhaps he thinks it will camouflage his son’s real sexual identity and serve to have him pass as one of the boys.  

(Center)  ‘Nicholas” played by Kai Luke Brummer, participating in gruelling basic training, in Oliver Hermanus’ MOFFIE. Photo Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release. 

Riding on a train with a bunch of young recruits, Nicholas witnesses them shouting at a black man sitting on a bench.  They throw garbage at him and call him the “N” word.  The horrifying scene is captured by Director of Photography Jamie D Ramsay, whose camera moves in and lingers on the man’s face, splattered with debris.  Hauntingly played by Israel Ngqawuza, without a single word of dialogue, everything you need to know about Apartheid is finely etched on that gentleman’s face. When this rowdy bunch arrive at the training center, they are greeted with a chaotic scene, with army personnel screaming orders at them.  Vicious Sergeant Brand, played with maximum meanness by Hilton Pelser, calls them scabs along with derogatory parts of the female anatomy.  The training period that ensues is brutal and designed to strip these young recruits of any shred of humanity. Those harrowing moments are documented by Ramsay’s finely tuned cinematography, especially in his close-up shots.  In the barracks, perhaps because of Nicholas’ delicate look, a boy begins to pick on him which he diffuses by showing him the girlie magazine.  There’s always one recruit that rubs the sergeant the wrong way and in this case it’s Michael Sachs.  Well played by Matthew Vey, his character is given a series of repetitive tasks that are exhausting and pointless.  The training exercises are brutal and sadistic.  One recruit throws up and the sergeant makes him redigest the regurgitated contents of his stomach.   Gossip spreads about two “faggots” and the young soldiers agree that they deserved to be punished with severe beatings and sent to Ward 22, where they will face the unthinkable.  One of the recruits, Dylan Stassen, sensitively played by Ryan de Villiers, senses a mutual attraction between he and Nicholas and in a surprising moment, gives him a hurried, but dangerous kiss on the lips.   

Standing) Ever vigilant not to have his sexual identity revealed, “Nicholas,’ played by  Kai Luke Brummer, participates in a training exercise.  Photo Courtesy of IFC Films. An IFC Films release. 

While showering one evening, Nicholas has a flashback to when he was a young boy of nine or ten at a summer resort with his family.  He makes his way into the men’s showers where he stares at the naked bodies.   He is caught by a bully of a man who drags him back to his parents shouting that there is something wrong with their son. His dad defends him but the issue is never discussed and we realize that even at that young age, Nicholas knew who he really was and perhaps his father did as well.  There is a tender scene during a heavy downpour between Nicholas and Dylan, another recruit nicely played by Ryan de Villiers.  They are in a trench together.  They’re cold and wet and they look at each other and slowly move closer and closer to keep warm.  Nicholas notices that he has not seen Stassen recently.  He finds out that what befell him is every gay soldier’s nightmare –that he had been sent to Ward 22.  The future relationship between them is left with a giant question mark.

Eight months into training, the young soldiers, many of whom transitioned from playful young men to potential killers, are allowed to go on leave before shipping out.  At home, wearing his uniform, Nicholas’ parents drink a toast to him with his dad saying ,“Now you’re a man.” 

Director Oliver Hermanus assembled an excellent supporting cast including, Stefan Vermaak, Wynand Ferreira, Rikus Terblanche, Shaun Chad Smit, and Hendrik Nieuwoudt.  In addition, he surrounded himself with a top-notch production team including, Editors Alain Dessauvage and George Hanmer, Costume Designer Reza Levy, and Composer Braam du Toit, whose lively musical score ranges from Bach to Rock with a fun scene of the boys singing “Summer Breeze.”

It’s unlikely that any director starts out to make a masterpiece.  However, this work merits that description as MOFFIE is truly unforgettable, finely-crafted filmmaking. 

Distributor:  IFC Films

Release Date:  Current

Where: Select Theaters & on Digital and VOD Platforms

Language:  Afrikaans and English

Running Time:  106 Minutes

Rating:  R

*Dr. Aubrey Levin was sentenced in a five-year prison sentence on April 23, 2014.

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