Writer: Oliver Hermanus and Jack Sidey
Director: Oliver Hermanus
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
The Best Film Award category at this year’s BFI London Film Festival includes some stunning films, including the well-deserved winner Monos. Also up for consideration was the South African drama Moffie, which traces a boy’s life as he is conscripted into the army in the early ‘80s. In amid the brutal training and manoeuvres is the sliver of a dangerous love affair.
Oliver Hermanus’s film is beautifully shot from the close-ups on the faces of the young recruits to the wide views of the South African landscape. Each painterly shot is a statement, and the features of his leading men fill the frame, adding to the claustrophobia of Nick’s first days in the army. Even the title of the film, based on a memoir by André Carl van der Merwe is a statement. ‘Moffie ‘means ‘faggot’ in Afrikaans, a word so incendiary that many South African newspapers refuse to print the name of Hermanus’s film.
As soon as he’s picked up by train, Nick is plunged into a melee of bodies: boys fighting, boys drinking and boys puking. When they finally reach base, it’s the sergeant’s job to turn these ‘scabs’, as he calls them, into soldiers. The rigorous exercises that follow – push-ups and drills – are familiar enough scenes in the movies, but they haven’t looked so crisp and sensual since Claire Denis’ Beau Travail. A mixture of original music, mostly all strings, by Braam du Toit and of composers like Bach raises the stake of these workouts considerably, and threatens, excitingly, to overpower the action.
It takes a while for the ‘English’ Nick to fit in with his comrades, mostly a boisterous bunch of Afrikaners. It goes without saying that all the soldiers we meet are white; they are on the way to Angola to stop the spread of communism and to protect their mothers and sisters from black men. As well as racist the army is homophobic, but when two soldiers are disciplined for ‘unnatural behaviour’ Nick unexpectedly find himself falling for fellow new recruit, the stubborn Stassen. Could he be a moffie too?
As Nick, Kai Luke Brummer is exceptional, easily relaying thoughtfulness and shyness. That the past haunts him is clear to see and explained in a perfectly placed flashback. It’s certain that Brummer has a successful career ahead of him. Ryan de Villiers as Stassen is inscrutable to the last, furthering Nick’s isolation.
Incredibly, this film has yet to find a UK distributer, but hopefully this has changed since the public screenings at the festival where many South Africans attested to the authenticity of the portrayal of the army in this period. In its depiction of young soldiers Moffie has some similarities with the South American Monos, but Hermanus’s film, with its focus on a single character, tells its story more conventionally. But it’s full of wonder, violence and precarious hope.
The BFI London Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October