Love and war in ’80s South Africa

A scene from the widely acclaimed Moffie, a South African film by Oliver Hermanus, which opens on March 13.

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BY BILLY SUTER

ACTORS who performed in South African stage productions of The Rocky Horror Show, Matilda and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time have been cast in the acclaimed new local film, Moffie, scheduled for a countrywide release on March 13.

Based on André-Carl van der Merwe’s iconic memoir of the same title, the film is directed by Oliver Hermanus. It tells of a young conscript in 1980s South Africa, who struggles to survive the sheer brutality of his army masters while an unspoken connection with a fellow recruit places him in even more peril.

The drama’s lead, Kai Luke Brümmer, who toiled tirelessly to prepare for the role of troubled Nicholas van der Swart, adopting a vigorous exercise and weight loss programme, had an award-winning performance in the stage drama, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

Ryan de Villiers was invited to audition for the role of Dylan Stassen in Moffie during a stage run of Matilda, for which he would later win the 2019 Fleur de Cap Award for Best Actor in a Musical, as the sinister Miss Trunchbull.

The cover for the new recording of Rodriguez’s Sugar Man, featured in the film Moffie.

Shaun Chad Smit, a model and actor who played golden boy Rocky in the Fugard Theatre production of The Rocky Horror Show, was said to have been an instant favourite for the role of Van der Merwe.

Director Hermanus has a few feature films under his belt. At 25, his first film, Shirley Adams, premiered in competition at the 62nd Locarno International Film Festival. His second film, Skoonheid (Beauty) premiered at the 64th Cannes Film Festival and went on to win the Queer Palm Award.

The Endless River, his third film, premiered in competition at the 72nd Venice Film Festival and was the first South African film to ever be invited to the festival’s main competition.

Moffie is Hermanus’s fourth feature film. It was also invited to premiere at the 76th Venice Film Festival in the Orizzonti competition, which made him the only South African to ever premiere at the festival twice.

Moffie is only the fourth South African film in the festival’s history to receive an invitation. The previous South African film to premiere in the Orizzonti competition was Darryl Roodt’s Yesterday.

On the film’s title, the director comments: “Our title, Moffie, is a potent and derogatory Afrikaans term for gay. It is a South African weapon of shame, used exclusively to oppress gay or effeminate.

“You start to hide from it when you are called this word for the first time. You begin to edit yourself. That is when you pretend you are someone else for the first time. All you know about that word is that it means you are bad.

“You are rejectable, unlikable and unacceptable, and during apartheid, just like a black man or woman, you were a crime. And so you needed to put it away, you needed to cover it up, to kill the moffie inside you.”

Kai Luke Brümmer toiled tirelessly to prepare for the role of troubled Nicholas van der Swart, adopting a vigorous exercise and weight loss programme.

He adds that he knew very little about the Border War between South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola.

“I also knew very little about the generation of white South African men who were forced to fight that war. In fairness, I have never given much thought to the hardships of white South Africans.

“In my mind, informed by the hardships and struggles of my own coloured parents and their parents before them, all white people in South Africa have had it easy. For the most part this is true. The system favoured them and it was wholly unfair and unforgivable.

“As a result I never considered young, gay, white youth living in the ’80s; never saw them as enemies of the State. This is a film about such a youth. White, 18 and coming to terms with his illegality.”

Oliver notes that while many stories about the apartheid system, the lives it ruined, the heroes it spawned, and the toll it took on the heritage of South African people, have been told over the last two decades, a “hidden history of a generation of white men” have fallen by the wayside.

“Here is a seemingly more complex point of view on a hidden history of the generation of white men who had to endure the apartheid propaganda machine,” he says.

“For many, their conscription into the army destroyed them because it forcibly imprinted – upon nearly one million white boys – a diseased ideology of white supremacy, racial intolerance and the desire to eradicate homosexuality and communism from South African society.”

In Moffie, the lead character Nicholas’s life is at risk, even as he is part of the ruling race.

A moment from Moffie, based on André-Carl van der Merwe’s iconic memoir of the same title.

“He is property of the State; there to defend the indefensible without question or resistance. He is commanded to relinquish himself to the cause of the government which could so easily lead to his death.

“The war he is fighting is, ultimately, pointless and the lives lost are lost in vain. The terror that was inflicted on the innocent was racially motivated, and in the end no side could claim true victory,” Hermanus explains in the film’s production notes.

Moffie’s story is Nicholas’s journey to overcome, not without loss and suffering, but in the end with an acceptance of who he is in that (apartheid) South Africa.

Hermanus adds: “It must be mentioned that the last of this generation of men, moulded to be soldiers not just for the border but for the streets of South Africa, are still alive today. They are fathers and brothers, sons and uncles. Very few speak about their time in the army, as if the militarisation of these boys near the fall of apartheid never happened.

“But the memory lingers, and even for those who were not gay or politically averse to the system, the damage is significant and present. This is a film about how white South African men have been made for nearly a century.”

What inspired Hermanus to adapt André-Carl van der Merwe’s iconic memoir?

“When I first read the book I was quite taken by the texture and detail it told of this part of our history. I did not know about the treatment of gay conscripts, about psychiatric Ward 22 or the damage that the system did to so many men and I felt very strongly that there was a power to Moffie that needed to be told on a cinema screen.

What was it about the story that resonated with him?

Kai Luke Brümmer in Brummer.

“At the centre of this film there is a word: Moffie. Any gay man living in South Africa knows this word and has a relationship with it. It’s a weapon that has been used against us for so long. I felt a strong pull to explore my own history with this word – which ended up being a scene in the film. I think it was the want to denuclearise, to reform this word that was at the heart of my decision to make this film. “

Issues of identity are, and sexuality are, more pertinent today than they were in 1981, when the story takes place, would Hermanus agree?

“Absolutely. We are living in a global culture where we still see the persecution of the LGBT community all over the world. At the same time, never before has the voice of this global community been more heard.

“A film like Moffie is there to remind us of what has come before, what we have endured and suffered through and why it is important to never stop being vocal and proud.”

Set in the 1980s, the film features a number of hit songs from that period, including McCully Workshop’s Buccaneer, Rodriguez’s Sugar Man, Yazoo’s Don’t Go, Dog Detachment’s Third World War and The Main Ingredient’s Summer Breeze. Classics from Bach and Vivaldi also feature on the soundtrack.


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