‘Moffie’ battles toxic apartheid nostalgia

Bucking how the South African Defence Force is often rendered on film, Moffie depicts brutalised conscripts being taught to hate, hurt and kill.

Moffie, freely adapted as its own story while drawing inspiration from a novel by Andre Carl van der Merwe, is director Oliver Hermanus’ most ambitious work to date. The film explores how the South African military during apartheid was used to crush political resistance internally and to destabilise surrounding countries, a conflict involving hundreds of thousands of white conscripts. Moffie focuses on how the South African Defence Force (SADF) programme brainwashed its recruits with racist propaganda and anti-communist paranoia, and brutalised any internal dissent or deviations from its militarised Calvinist fanaticism.

The filmmaker, who recently released Moffie to international audiences, discusses apartheid nostalgia, war and the future of cinema.

The past and present

Reflecting on how the Covid-19 pandemic affected the theatrical release of his intense apartheid border war drama Moffie, Hermanus says, “In a way it has pushed us into the future faster.”

The 37-year-old is speaking via video call from an old farm house in Barrydale in the Western Cape, where he has been spending the long months of South Africa’s national lockdown. Hermanus has been juggling preparing his next feature film, set in the UK in the 1950s, with the publicity requirements of his current release.

The filmmaker is in a unique position – after an initial film festival run in 2019, Moffie was released to international critical acclaim earlier this year. But just as it was gearing up for its wider distribution, cinemas shutdown. Suddently, audiences couldn’t see the gripping, brutal and tender depiction of a closeted gay conscript being programmed into a killer for the white supremacist SADF, circa 1981.

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Fortunately, the “sixth sense” of one of his producers meant that a website was assembled in time for now quarantined audiences to stream at home in South Africa, and internationally on Curzon Home Cinema. While he “agrees with Christopher Nolan that nothing can really beat the cinema experience”, Hermanus also wants art to reach the widest possible audience.

“There is an argument that digital spaces are more liberating because they allow more people to see film for the first time,” he explains, pointing out that in South Africa, “historically cinemas were only in certain neighbourhoods – and people’s access to cinemas is still so unequal”.

The home release may also have had other advantages. “Considering the title of the film and what the film was about, and considering how South Africans are inherently conservative, the anonymity may have meant more people saw it.”

This conservatism is rooted in a refusal to honestly square with both a traumatic past and the corrosive legacies of apartheid in the present. “There are SADF veterans who see the army as the best days of their lives. And those [who] see it as the best days of their lives are not wanting to see a film which demonstrates how this army and this war was racist, illegitimate, hateful, bigoted and violent. They’d probably walk away from a film like this feeling affronted.”

Undated: From left, Oliver Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie D Ramsay on the set of Moffie.
Undated: From left, Oliver Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie D Ramsay on the set of Moffie.

This apartheid nostalgia, coded or overt, has in recent years fuelled the growth of white nationalist organisations like Afriforum. Many older white South Africans have refused to look honestly at their complicity with a tyrannical, dehumanising social order.

“If you just look at the kind of work that is produced on privatised channels like kykNET, this is a nostalgia world. They show a world devoid of black people, black interaction, black narratives, black characters. This is a world where people don’t talk about politics. It is a huge dome of nostalgia for a white way of life. If you look at a film like Kanarie, it avoids the politics completely. There is a discomfort in these companies about challenging their base – and what that audience is buying is an escape, a head-in-the-sand perspective on who they are. And that’s incredibly dangerous.”

In contrast, his work is intended to “question, challenge … and destabilise”. For Hermanus, “making something safe seems like a waste of time”. In publicity footage, he lays out his cinematic approach, with thoughtfulness and an unwavering clarity. His greatest hope as a filmmaker is to provoke an audience by confronting them with uncomfortable but urgent and necessary questions about the world they live in and their role within it. As the interview closes, he states with certainty that “one can never make [films] as answers, one can only make them as questions, and you hope that your film is a profound and impactful question”. 

Intense character studies 

Hermanus was born into a family committed to asking questions about the world. 

Born in Cape Town in 1983, his politically active family moved to Plettenberg Bay, as apartheid laws classified his family as coloured. Dictating space and movement by race under the Group Areas Act, people like the Hermanuses were prohibited from living in the centre of the coastal town

The filmmaker had an early introduction to the world of cinema. His first public acclaim as a director came when he was only 13, when his amateur horror work Déjà Vu was deemed too scary for screening on the 1990s children programme K-TV.

After studying film at the University of Cape Town and working as a press photographer for the Cape Argus, a scholarship to the London Film School led to him directing the Cape Flats-set character study Shirley Adams (2009), followed by Skoonheid (Beauty) (2011), The Endless River (2015) and now, Moffie.

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His beautifully observed films are intimate character portraits, sharing themes of how individuals’ desires and dreams are shaped, twisted and warped by South Africa’s structural racism, violence, inequality, bigotry and historically ingrained trauma.

His directorial style combines stark social realism with poetic imagery and mood. In a scene from Shirley Adams, we see the down-on-her-luck titular protagonist shoplift from a supermarket. The camera’s claustrophobic focus turns these moments into a tense drama of paranoia and dread, as her palpable desire not to be caught almost burns from the screen. It captures both a telling incident in one character’s life and the broader societal misery and desperation caused by impoverishment.

Hermanus also weaves his personal experiences as a black gay person into his character studies. One of the most potent scenes in Moffie was directly inspired by a childhood experience of being homophobically shamed in a public restroom while at play, and having the slur word which ultimately became the film’s title weaponised against him. As he recounted in an interview with AnOther magazine, this traumatic encounter left him with a lingering feeling of shame, as his youthful sense of freedom and selfhood was ripped away by the toxic masculinity of homophobia.

Yet his work also explores how these racial and sexual power structures traumatised and poisoned white South African men. Skoonheid shows the violent devastation unleashed by the psychological repression of its protagonist, a closeted gay who is also a conservative Afrikaner. In the film, the kitsch interior and furniture of Free State farmhouses look almost infected by denial and seething violence.

But he never lets white supremacy off the hook or denies the agency of the characters in his films. He maintains a clear focus on how the dehumanisation and brutality of apartheid was rooted in racial violence. As Moffie’s combat scenes make clear, the trauma inflicted on white men by their state and society was intended to make them dehumanise, oppress and destroy black people. 

Making the past real 

“When you embark on making a war film, which I never imagined I’d do to be honest, you are going to be subject to a lot of critical eyes. The military is such a specific thing, with specific rules and insignia. And you are going into a lion’s den, when the participants in that conflict are still alive. We seem to constantly be talking about Christopher Nolan, but when he made Dunkirk, there were maybe 20 people alive who had been part of that conflict. So, he was only [getting] 20 people’s angry emails about how all the details were wrong.”

Recreating the lost world of 1981 entailed “being incredibly correct in our depiction of it. From a costume point of view to production design. And also the performance of the actors. Their drills, their salutes, the insults they say, even the details of the story of the film.”

Undated: Moffie director Oliver Hermanus worked hard to get the costumes and set just right to depict an army base in 1981.
Undated: Moffie director Oliver Hermanus worked hard to get the costumes and set just right to depict an army base in 1981.

This meant that Hermanus and the creative team had to go down a long road of archival research to create a bank of images to recreate middle-class white South African life. People freely uploading their pictorial pasts onto platforms like Flickr proved a research goldmine. “It’s the age of the internet,” the filmmaker explains, “and people want to document their entire lives online … we were able to see record players, carpets, hairstyles, cars and interiors.”

Historical accuracy also presents some challenges, particularly when it came to some of the more outre fashion of the time. “I couldn’t believe,” he remembers of the pre-production process, “that men wore such short and tight shorts.” In considering this, he was thinking through the politics of this presentation of gay men now. “Before we started fitting the actors, the costume designer said, ‘This is the evidence. Here are hundreds of photos.’ But putting them on the actors was nerve-racking.” Fortunately, he says, “when you see it in the film it doesn’t look as weird”.

Fear in the world

As part of their preparation, the ensemble cast of actors undertook a “48-hour bootcamp by the real army”. Hermanus worked closely with the actors to create compelling backstories and motivations for each character. This level of attention translates powerfully as the finished film shows how the apartheid state manipulated personal bonds and intimacies to weld soldiers to a murderous system.

Recreating a world of military bases and battles also meant the director had to take a firm stance on financing. “One of the crises of film in South Africa is directors not putting their foot down about production value. Because it’s still rare to have feature films made [here] – we are still a small industry – there is an attitude of trying to make it work and not wanting to let the opportunity go by. 

“If I’m creating 1981 in South Africa, and I need to shoot a military base and historically these bases were in rural towns like Oudsthoorn and Middelburg, the first thing you are going to say to a team of producers is that we are not going to shoot that location in Cape Town. When I look off that military base, I want to see empty landscapes for as far as the eye can see.

“But then producers will go, ‘Okay, great, but we can’t shoot in Oudtshoorn because we can’t move 120 people there for two months.’ So that’s when you have to get creative, which is why the military base was filmed in three different locations. There was one for the interiors, another for all the inter-building sets and there is a third location for the volleyball court and the rugby field. All playing one space, but all within an 80 km radius of Cape Town.”

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This rigorous approach results in a film where the base becomes a dystopian world of its own, a perverse factory where humans are trained to hate, hunt and kill others. While set in the past, it resonates deeply with the increasingly authoritarian reality of 2020, where police, military and private forces continue to terrorise oppressed populations across the world, from Minneapolis to Johannesburg. Meanwhile, the ultranationalist and segregationist ideology of the apartheid state is echoed in a growing international hard Right and continuties of oppression at home.

“It wasn’t like everyone was just born agreeing with apartheid. People were manipulated and socialised into reinforcing it,” Hermanus cautions, “and that was done through fear and separating and dangerous ideas about ‘communism’ and all sorts … Whatever it took! And those things are still real when you have an American president, right now, again creating fear as the general theme of the world.”

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