Inside Out Review: 'Moffie' Shows the Power of Gay Resilience Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Starring Kai Luke Brümmer, Dylan Stassen, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak
Published Jun 02, 2021Born in South Africa under apartheid, director Oliver Hermanus never gave much thought to the hardships of white South Africans. In his mind, he says in the film's press notes, "all white people in South Africa have had it easy." This is true — but imagine being a gay teenage boy in South Africa in the 1980s. They, too, saw prejudice as they lived a life of illegality.
The film's title, Moffie, is a derogatory and oppressive Afrikaans term for "gay." Many lives were ruined and changed due to apartheid — and this included every white boy over the age of 16, who became the property of the state and was forced to complete two years of compulsory military service to defend a white supremacist regime against communism in bordering Angola. This, Hermanus says, "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." For the film's main character, Nicholas (Kai Luke Brümmer), war isn't the only danger he faces — he also must survive being a homosexual during this era in South Africa.
Moffie opens with a going-away party for Nicholas, but it doesn't feel like a celebratory event, as a melancholy score of strings juxtaposes a heaviness that hangs in the air. Then, the scene shifts to Nicholas running away into the night — running, perhaps, from what lies ahead and the part of himself that must remain invisible. There are many moments when the score seems to overpower what's happening on screen, but composer Braam du Toit never fails to match a scene's tone. There are tense moments when the score is boisterous, moments when melancholy hits again, moments when it's more joyful and spirited, and moments when it's operatic. It creates an incredibly poetic film, especially with Jamie D. Ramsay's rich cinematography filling the screen. No doubt, the best work of the year so far — whether it's the breathtaking aerial shots of the landscape on Nicholas's train journey to war, a shot of the men covered in the final glow of blue sky before a thunderstorm, or the men walking away from sunset. Some shots are so perfect it's almost suffocating, especially one shot of the train that gives a sense of tunnel vision as though there is no way out for these boys. Empty train hallways, closeups of their faces — it's all foreboding and meditative.
While the train ride may have been peaceful, what follows is not, as the scene turns to chaos, with the men being put on trucks and transported to a remote training camp. Immediately, they are verbally abused by drill sergeants. It's an overwhelming few minutes. And then, there's stillness as they stand at attention in uniform.
Moffie is a war film unlike many before it. There are tense bits of action as the squad heads to the border eight months after their training. But the action scenes, which, in many ways, make war films different from other genres, take very little importance here. Violence is ever-present, however, whether that be violence in the form of racist and homophobic rhetoric, or in the form of physical beatings. When two recruits are caught together, they are bloodied. Their faces covered in scratches. The word "Moffie" is weaponized as the other recruits hurl it at them, and it pierces like a bullet. If you are suspected of homosexuality, you are sent to Ward 22 or the "looney bin." Hermanus chooses never to show Ward 22; instead, it's only seen through Nicholas's imagination. Moffie never leans into trauma porn. On the contrary, in the moments where there are shocking acts of violence, it leads to reflection.
These young men are being trained in an incredibly toxic masculine environment and are made to feel that they must suppress all emotions. Happiness and love must be eradicated, dulled like pain with morphine. So when Nicholas and another boy, Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), act on their desires, it's a brave act of defiance. Lying next to each other in the trenches, a beautiful scene transpires — one of the utmost tenderness, as Dylan caresses Nicholas' face. Perhaps it's the first time Nicholas has felt a touch like that. And in the chill of the night, the desire burns. Even despite the memories it brings back to Nicholas, he won't suppress how he feels — memories that perhaps have made him afraid to be himself all this time. These scenes of Nicholas in childhood help shed light on his character, and also illustrate South Africa's attitudes towards gay people outside of a military setting.
The cast is made up of relatively unknown actors, some of whom are untrained or high school students. But with the weight of their character's situation that they must carry and the emotions they must convey, you would never know that they haven't been acting for years. Kai Luke Brümmer is a revelation. Even though the forced suppression of emotion leaves him often expressionless, he conveys so much with his eyes. He's phenomenal and, as a result of his performance, it's at times hard to watch what his character must endure. You're always afraid for him and want nothing more for him to overcome this traumatic experience. It's not the most pleasurable of watches, but in the end, there is acceptance and healing, not defeat.
Inside Out festival runs online from May 27 to June 6.