In the grip of apartheid and the long-running border war with Namibia (then South West Africa), the South African regime forces all white boys over the age of 16 to perform national service. South African writer-director Oliver Hermanus adapts André Carl van der Merwe’s novel about a closeted gay conscript brutalised by a system of hatred.
Moffie is, at its core, an existential horror of endurance within a system whose only function is to destroy individual being. This struggle is embodied through Nick (Kai Luke Brummer), about to be sent along with thousands of other youths to serve in the ranks of the South African Defence Force. Brummer’s casting and performance channel Nick’s apparent contradiction of masculinity: he is fiercely handsome and in peak physical fitness but these belie a delicacy of being, one betrayed by his cat-like eyes and quiet manner.
The rowdy posturing of his fellow recruits, as a train snakes its way through the parched South African landscape, is his first taste of the nightmare of toxic masculinity awaiting him; his second is the spectacle of a black man – one of the few black faces finding their unfortunate way into Moffie’s hyper-brutal, whitened frame – having a bag of sick hurled at him by the baying recruits. Nick looks on helplessly, sympathetically in a moment that finds its horrible echo at the film’s climax.
Basic army training – comprising the majority of the narrative – is a familiar trope of war cinema – and so indeed are its components: the psychotic drill sergeant, the physical torment, the strange mix of ritualised violence and camaraderie among the conscripts. But not since Full Metal Jacket has such systematic and intentional breaking of humanity been depicted so forcefully on screen. The shrieking, moustachioed Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) is a vision of cruelty, variously forcing recruits to eat their own vomit, beating them to within an inch of their life and in one instance, driving them to suicide.
The dry environs of the army training centre are captured by cinematographer Jamie Ramsay in parched yellows. Meanwhile, a boxy, 1.37:1 frame and hanheld camera work emphasises performances while boxing the actors into an oppressive mise en scène. The harsh visuals are juxtaposed with a recurring water motif that signifies both Nick’s own sexuality and the all-pervasive homophobia toxifying him, evoked most painfully in three swimming sequences.
Underneath all the ritual violence and performative masculinity is the evil of institutional bigotry, targeted here at gay men but just as applicable to race. Here, the intersectional meaning of Moffie’s title is clear: translated in subtitles as common slur ‘faggot’, the true meaning is closer to the ‘N’ word, a signifier of complete inhumanity, used to express pure hatred.
The paucity of black characters in a film whose opening titles include the word ‘apartheid’ seems odd, but this is a story told utterly through the white gaze. In this world, black people are understood only as objects and external threats, to be used or disposed of with impunity, while gay white men are aberrant interlopers corrupting the group from within. Unfortunates like Nick must do, as one character puts it “everything they can to stay invisible”.
Moffie is available to watch on Curzon Home Cinema from 24 April.
Christopher Machell | @MachellFilm