Oliver Hermanus is a film-maker known for pushing boundaries, dealing with provocative subject matter in a bold, unfettered and sweeping fashion. His previous films include: Skoonheid, Shirley Adams and The Endless River, all challenging coming-of-age dramas with characters pushed to the edge. His latest film, Moffie, falls into this channel as a young gay conscript tries to survive two years of intensive military service in Apartheid-era South Africa.
Hermanus opts for a young, relatively unknown cast in Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey and Hilton Pelser. This move makes it easier to sink into the conscript hell that is Moffie as we too are thrust into a realistic and alienating environment. Their unfamiliarity isn’t any indication of their immense talent with each of the leads delivering seasoned and subtle performances under Hermanus’s sensitive direction. They do a phenomenal job of bringing their characters to life, compelled by key performances from de Villiers and Vey with an enigmatic and soulful overarching presence in Brummer as Nicholas. Hilton Pelser deserves a special mention for his seething turn as Brand.
After Kanarie, a film that dealt with a gay man’s induction into the South African Defence Force choir and concert group, the underlying concept seems similar yet executed with a much grittier and realistic treatment. Christiaan Olwagen’s war drama had a musical element, exploring the idea of military service and inherent prejudices from a similar age and perspective, yet dabbling with comedic undertones more readily. Hermanus leans into the soul-crushing drama, echoing Full Metal Jacket in terms of the hardened boot camp dynamics, breaking down the spirit and unifying recruits through tough conditions and psychological warfare.
“I said eyes to the ground!”
Employing many typical fireside boot camp stories, there’s an air of authenticity as we are immersed in this intense, stoic and regimented new world. Beautifully photographed, the production looks world-class… subtle and nuanced enough to create a poetic albeit harrowing experience. A haunting rendition of Sugarman by Sixto Rodriguez helps transport audiences back to the age of the Border War. Hermanus doesn’t shy away from some of the harsh realities of the time, drawing considerable and unsettling power from a host of underlying prejudices of the Apartheid regime.
As you’d expect from a film with a provocative title like Moffie, the drama grapples with the sense of shame, secrecy and the military culture’s inherent homophobia. Touching on the lead’s sexual identity and awakening in a time of strong prejudice and mocking machismo, the hate-fuelled word appeared difficult to mention for some folks discussing the film on TV.
Coarse language, psychological torture, raw violence and strong prejudice make Moffie a challenging viewing experience. While visually-compelling, the film seems preoccupied with crafting an immersive experience offering a poetry to the storytelling that may leave you slightly underwhelmed by the resolution.
The bottom line: Poetic