In a week when #blacklivesmatter demonstrations have been taking to the streets, it’s strange to be reviewing a movie almost exclusively featuring ‘whites only’. As its title suggests moffie, Afrikaans slag for the derogatory term ‘faggot’, is about homosexuality, but look deeper and the film’s context is the ruling white elite’s war against black freedom fighters . Oliver Hermanus, its 36-year-old director, presents us with a retrospective on what it was like to be gay and a conscript in 1980s South Africa, a country apartheid ruled, where machismo and fear of commies were bedfellows, and to be homosexual was illegal.
Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is leaving home for his two years compulsory military service to fight the ‘terrs’ in Namibia. He is a good-looking sensitive lad, quite overwhelmed by the change in his home-boy lifestyle, starting with the horrendous train journey with his fellow conscripts. In one of the only scenes involving Africans, the train stops at a station where a solitary black man refuses to stand as demanded by the jeering crowd of oiks and has a bag full of excrement thrown at him. It can only get worse.
The training camp is a vortex of human degradation and brutality. The squaddies are made to yomp through the bush without rest or water, punished for any sign of weakness and eat their own vomit. Chief bully Sergeant Brand, scarily immortalised by Hilton Pelser, enumerates the rules of hatred: commies first but not far behind are the moffies. When macho maverick Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) is found to have an earring hole he is mercilessly beaten; anyone suspected of being gay is sent to the secret Ward 22, or the loony bin, unless he takes an easier way out. Being gay is not something to shout about but somehow a nascent friendship develops between Nick and Stassen which must of course be kept deadly secret.
Hermanus charts life in hell with a homoerotic camera, mirroring a sense longing amongst the sex-starved boys – there are endless scenes of muscular male bodies in the shower, of contact sports, swimming naked and general camaraderie but any sign of being a sissy is jumped on. Nick’s stash of porn mags given to him by his English-speaking father, not the Afrikaner step-dad whose name he has taken, come in handy to get the lads off his back. As the only non-Afrikaner in the camp he is doubly marked. Somehow he must keep up his guard.
This is an eerie film and it had me hanging on its every scene. It is an extraordinary achievement by a director who wasn’t even alive at the time he is chronicling . There is a constant undercurrent of menace, heightened by Braam di Toit’s discordant score, interspersed with more familiar tunes such as the big South African hit Sugar Man, and expanded by the vast and barren African landscape, no more so than when our gang finally reaches the Angolan border for the culmination of their training. The bombed-out huts where the army has its camp is also inhabited by the only other Africans we see – the remnants of the villagers whose men, we assume, form the terrorists the South Africans are chasing.
As the drama unfolds it becomes clear that this is neither an action movie, nor a gay drama, but a lament for loss of integrity, of the ability of lies and aggression to dominate a nation and to subjugate its people. There is a telling scene, a flashback to a family holiday, which acts as a microcosm of all that was wrong with South Africa then – and what has scarred its people for life – both gay, black and white. While at one level this is a story about being homosexual at a certain time in history, it is also a commentary about the indignity of being subjected to a bigoted and domineering hierarchy that crushed its people.
It is as relevant a parable for racism today as it is as a record of a despicable period in South Africa’s history.