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Review: Moffie Gets the Sting of Oppression but Lacks Balance of Perspective

Oliver Hermanus’s film is a rumination on the consequences of apartheid on those who benefit from it most.

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Moffie
Photo: IFC Films

In the same way that attaching a caption to a photograph can turn the image into a mere representation of the words, intertitles have the potential to reduce a film to a commentary on a historical era, instead of a story about certain characters that happens to unfold in a particular time and place. It’s a subtle distinction but one with hefty ramifications. In the case of Oliver Hermanus’s Moffie, you may wonder if the film might have been better served by scrapping the intertitles and letting the images speak for themselves.

Moffie, as the intertitles inform us, is set in apartheid South Africa in 1981, when the state moved to “stop the spread of communism” by militarizing its border with Soviet-backed Angola. “All white boys over the age of 16 are conscripted for compulsory military service,” we’re told, and the film’s protagonist, Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), is among them. Before the images have had a chance to individuate Nicholas or his surroundings, they’re overshadowed by huge abstract historical and political categories, which create an expectation that Moffie will go on to address issues of apartheid, nationalism, ideology, and so on. And it does address them—albeit indirectly and, when it comes down to it, inadequately.

The film follows Nicholas through basic training as he and another conscript (Ryan de Villiers) develop a sexual attraction to one other at the risk of being sent to Ward 22, the military equivalent of an insane asylum (the film gets its title from an Afrikaans slur aimed at homosexuals). It’s as brutal a depiction of boot camp as any, complete with a mustachioed drill sergeant (Hilton Pelser) who delights in the humiliation and dehumanization apparently required to transform teenagers into killers. Hermanus creates a jarring and effecting juxtaposition of brutalization and homoeroticism, even if it borrows too heavily from Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket on the one hand, and Claire Denis’s Beau Travail on the other.

In a sense, the film’s struggle to distinguish itself is fitting, as Nicholas is equally at pains to express his identity. (If anything here stands out as particularly expressive, it’s Jamie D. Ramsay’s lavish photography of the South African landscape and Braam du Toit’s score, at turns operatic and avant-garde.) He’s English but has adopted his stepfather’s Afrikaans surname, and while he yearns, he hardly speaks. His past and interiority are confined to a single traumatic flashback. It’s as if the historical forces alluded to by the intertitles prevent him from surpassing one-dimensionality. Opacity is the defining feature of his character.

Set for the most part in an all-male, totally segregated microcosm of South African society, Hermanus’s film narrows its scope to that of the country’s white minority, as rabidly homophobic as it is racist, with intercolonial tensions between English and Afrikaans speakers barely papered over by their mutual hatred of the people they oppress. All blackness is relegated to the background, with the exception of two scenes that essentially bookend Moffie. In the first, the conscripts aboard a train to boot camp bombard an elderly black man (Israel Ngqawuza) with slurs and trash at a station, ending with a close-up on the man’s weary face. Near the end of the film, another close up shows the life draining from the eyes of the black “communist” who Nicholas has just gunned down in a firefight at the border.

Insofar as Moffie lives up to the expectations created by the intertitles, it’s a rumination on the consequences of apartheid on those who benefit from it most. This isn’t a film about overcoming all obstacles in the joyous realization of one’s sexual identity, but rather the failure, even the impossibility, of doing so in a society that runs on exploitation and abuse. Moffie depicts Nicholas’s repression as an extension of the same power structures that uphold apartheid, showing how dehumanization ricochets back on the dehumanizer. Although the film lacks a corresponding black perspective, it’s worth pointing out that Hermanus himself is black. In presenting a white experience of oppression, the filmmaker performs an act of solidarity even as he diagnoses the aftershocks of colonialism. Implicitly addressed to a white audience, however, Moffie runs a risk of reinforcing the segregation it aims to combat.

Cast: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Matthew Vey, Stefan Vermaak, Hilton Pelser, Wynand Ferreira, Rikus Terblanche, Shaun Chad Smit, Hendrik Nieuwoudt, Barbara-Marié Immelman, Michael Kirch, Israel Ngqawuza Director: Oliver Hermanus Screenwriter: Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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