Moffie: A brooding film about the violence of masculinity, homophobia and race in apartheid South Africa

From the moment mustachioed Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) barks across the train platform at floppy-haired recruit Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer), to get on the fokkin’ train, the threats, abuse, and ‘foks’ in Moffie never let up. 

Directed by Oliver Hermanus, whose 2011 film ‘Beauty’ was nominated for an Oscar and won the Queer Palm at Cannes, the film showed in Berlin on Saturday 5th September as part of the Queer Film Festival 2020, organised by German distributor Salzgeber in cooperation with Pornfilmfestival Berlin and Berlin Lesbian Non-Binary Filmfest. 

Moffie is a tense study of power, sexuality and race under apartheid. It’s 1981 and the government of South Africa is engaged in skirmishes with its northern neighbours, Mozambique and Angola. Nicholas finds himself conscripted along with his white peers into the army. To survive, he must not only endure the harsh training but also conceal his queer desires from those around him. 

To a score that thrums menacingly with strings, we share Nicholas’ dread on entering a world of brutal masculine ritual. The conscripts must submit to the whims of their Afrikaans sergeant, who stands over them through rounds of pull-ups and forced marches, bellowing insults. After one especially gruelling trek, he pours their refreshments into the dirt and sends them on their way again. Each punishing ordeal must be borne without complaint – silence is the mark of manliness here and their submission to the power of this macho figure must be total.

These strict hierarchies are represented alongside other, just as prescriptive forms of male bonding. Hermanus attentively, almost lovingly, films the fistfights, topless volleyball matches, hard drinking and insulting of female relatives that brings the young men together, until you can almost smell the testosterone.

Yet this proximity is always on a knife edge. Too much closeness between men raises suspicion and gay desire is ruthlessly policed. That violence is verbal, as in the film’s often heard eponymous slur, and physical, as we witness the public punishment of two soldiers caught in flagrante. 

We watch nervously as Nicholas, who is isolated by his difference. His gay desires are solitary, stolen in moments of desperate, one-handed pleasure in a toilet cubicle or slyly glimpsed among the showers. When something else seems to emerge with a fellow soldier (Dylan Stassen), it passes in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it allusions, too fragile and dangerous for words. We watch and wait, against a backdrop of dawn skies and huge, dusty mountains that Hermanus films with a richness and silence that recall Terrence Malick. 

Brummer’s performance as Nicholas is nuanced and understated. We rarely have access to his inner workings or much of his backstory, yet it is gut wrenching to watch him face this hostile environment, his vulnerability as visible to us as that of a child on their first day of school. So it is almost a relief to escape the claustrophobia of army life, and retreat at one point into an extended childhood flashback. Here too, however, the demands of a watchful, deeply conservative society are in force and the memory twists into a nightmarish spectacle of public shame.

That burning, identity-forging sense of shame pervades this film’s representation of queer identity. It keeps Nicholas from expressing himself openly or showing solidarity with other victims. His survival here depends on staying silent, hidden, and complying with what is demanded of him.

These brutal norms are in turn part of how the film treats the theme of race and complicitness. These militaristic masculinities are ultimately enforced in order to shore up a racist political regime, which phrases its call for white supremacy (despite tensions between Afrikaans and English-speaking groups) as a gendered call to arms. The white soldiers are repeatedly told of the need to defend their mothers, sisters, and the God-given land itself against the danger from Black communists and terrorists.

Though Nicholas bonds with a fellow recruit over Sixto Rodriguez (whose 1970s music was subject of the Oscar-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man), their liberal inclinations cannot be expressed openly. As white soldiers, they remain complicit in the violence of apartheid, even perpetuating it on their final tour of the borderlands. When Black figures do briefly appear on screen, their presence is made to feel incongruous, shocking even. They appear at the margins, enclosed by soldiers whose abuse they must unflinchingly endure, another unwelcome reality to be kept from view. 

While tension can sag during repetitive scenes of army life, and their characters’ isolation prevents us from knowing them intimately, the film viscerally captures the frailties, contradictions and denials of white masculinity. Against this landscape of racism and homophobia, these are men who cannot speak and cannot share themselves, only fight and hide.