Back when the Apartheid regime was alive and well in South Africa in the 1980s, any boy over the age of 16 was made to complete two years of military service to defend the institutionalized system of racial segregation against the so-called “black danger” (as well as the threat of communism) coming from its southern border with Angola. In Moffie, it is under these circumstances in 1981 that we meet Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), who is shipped off first to boot camp and eventually active combat, facing an equal number of perils during both. He’s also a deeply closeted gay teenager in a country where being gay is not just looked down upon, it’s illegal, punishable by months in a mental hospital and treatments that are too terrible even to mention in the film.
We’ve seen films about the nightmare that is bootcamp, from sadistic drill sergeants (there is most certainly one here) to living quarters filled with raging hormones and naked aggression. It is under these circumstances that Nicholas forms a bond with a fellow recruit, but as the pair watch as others in their group get berated and shipped out for undesirable behavior, they are cautious to the point of not really allowing anything to transpire. For much of Moffie (the South African term for being weak and effeminate, which was equated to being gay), Nicholas’s sexuality is more of the backdrop of the story of life in the military for a kid still discovering himself. The existence is positively brutal, and getting through the experience becomes less about excelling at being a solider and more about simply surviving the compulsory service.
But it’s within this environment that Nicholas learns that he is is not just illegal but unwanted in society, and he not only learns to kill using weapons, but also learns to tamp down any feelings he was developing for another man. At one point when he feels he may be discovered, we’re given a flashback to him as a boy, spying on someone in the showers at the local pool. He’s caught by an adult and not just turned in but humiliated for what he’s done. It was a lesson he learned quite young, and ever since then, keeping himself hidden has been the order of the day and a necessary evil in a nation built on hateful practices.
Directed by Oliver Hermanus, Moffie doesn’t offer a great deal in terms of things we haven’t seen before, either in films about military boot camps or stories about gay men who are in the deepest levels of denial and hiding their true selves. But somehow combining the two perspectives under the backdrop of Apartheid makes it feel like something new and worth exploring. It’s not always an easy film to watch, but on many levels, it is one worth seeking out.
The film is now playing theatrically at the Landmark Century Center Cinema, and is available via VOD.
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