Yesterday, I made the decision to stream Moffie, Oliver Hermanus’ 4th film, while playing a hobbit in my room for the 9th consecutive day. I knew the subject matter of the film and I knew a few faces in the cast, but what I didn’t know was that I’d be in for a rollercoaster of emotions.
The film opens with Nicholas van der Swart’s family going-away party before the start of his compulsory service in the South African army. His family is jovial about his conscription, proclaiming their excitement over Nicholas’ impending journey towards “becoming a man”. As his father leaves, he hands over a pornographic magazine, telling Nicholas to “use it as ammunition”. This scene is one of many that requires us to read between the lines and determine the underlying nuances within our own frame of reference. While on the train to training, Nick meets Michael Sachs. Right off the bat, you realise that Sachs, along with the other youths on the train, won’t be minor characters and his participation in Nicholas’ narrative will be noteworthy. He offers Nick some brandy, but Nick declines. Sachs then asks him: “Are you sure? You know where we are going right?”
Set in 1981, Apartheid South Africa, Moffie explores sexuality, silence, self-preservation, religion, racial privilege, cultural difference and white bigotry through the eyes of Nicholas van der Swart, a teenager conscripted into the South African army.
Sachs’ initial question is a loaded one. While it signifies the realisation that Nick and all the other conscripts on the train are on their way to a life-altering reckoning with the mindlessness of a bureaucrat’s war, it challenges the viewer and acts a scapegoat for getting off the train before the next heartbreaking scene: they encounter a black man on the train station and the setting of the film should act as an indication of what ensues. However, it is from this point on that we, as the viewers, are complicit in the narrative – whether it is because of the film’s ability to pull us in so convincingly, or because of the relation of our own biographical qualities to that of the film’s characters, we board the train for what ends up being an immersive filmic experience.
Set in 1981, Apartheid South Africa, Moffie explores sexuality, silence, self-preservation, religion, racial privilege, cultural difference and white bigotry through the eyes of Nicholas van der Swart, an English teenager conscripted into the South African army. As Hermanus explains, the title of the film speaks to the “weaponisation” of the word; a word which dehumanises, demoralises and demasculinises men. While the comment section on YouTube sadly attests to the still prevalent, present-day discriminatory use of the word, the film, in its simplicity, shies away from a literal reclamation of the word as a tool of empowerment and instead beautifully captures the heartbreak of silencing desire and hiding who you are for the sake of survival. It is in the silences and quiet exchanges between characters that the true message of this film is hidden. It’s sad that this gentle nuance will be lost on viewers who refrain from or refuse to see past their own convictions.
Based on Andre Carl van der Merwe’s memoir of the same title, the film contains motifs that are familiar to most, if not all, South African viewers. The film, however, forces the viewer to reckon with this familiarity in an unfamiliar way. In an interview with the young actor who portrays Nick, Luke Kai Brümmer, he describes the process of making Moffie as “a joint suffering and a joint creation” whereby everyone involved in the film was irreversibly changed in some way. I believe the same can be argued for the viewer watching this joint creation – in some way, we are pulled into the narrative and whether it be the breathtaking cinematography, bone-chilling score, or something even deeper than that, we leave the film not quite ourselves. At least, that was the experience for me. Brümmer further explains that during the course of production “the narrative of filmmaking, the narrative of who we were, and the narrative in itself merged perfectly”. This conflation – between the viewer, the actor, the story – is what drives this favourable review and which argues for Moffie’s unquestionable success as a filmic experience.
It is in the silences and quiet exchanges between characters that the true message of this film is hidden.
The punching and unnerving score deserves a 5-star review on its own – each note masterfully accentuates the atmosphere of any particular scene. A cover of Rodriguez’s “Sugarman” accompanies the closing credits, and beautifully captures the bittersweet ending to the film.
The film has quite a few fresh faces, but the actors’ limited experience is in no way apparent in their portrayal of naive, innocent conscripts. My favourite scenes include those where they are “at ease” and relaxing in their dorm rooms – the camaraderie between the boys makes their role in the army a bitter pill to swallow as we know that they won’t retain this youthful optimism.
Moffie is unlike any other film I have seen before. So many factors are at play in creating a truly beautiful, heartbreaking and thoughtful film that it is unlikely that anything will come close to its calibre anytime soon. While some may argue that it is necessary to remove yourself from a film in order to objectively consider its merit, I believe that given one’s own positionality and Hermanus’ clever hand at creating a truly immersive experience, this is highly improbable to happen for any reviewer. At the end of the day, what’s most important to me is how a film makes me feel – the fact that I have now opened my browser and wallet to stream Moffie three times, should indicate some validity in my emotional response to it.
*Due to the nationwide lockdown, Moffie is now available to stream at moffiefilm.com/stream. A single viewing costs R150 and the process is very simple. Be sure to use at least one of your 21 days to support this fantastic cast and crew. Featured image courtesy of moffiefilm.com/gallery.