Upcoming South African film ‘Moffie’ has already made a massive impact on the world stage. The film will have its premiere over the next few months in Palm Springs (US), Norway, Ireland and Mexico. The film has enamoured audiences around the globe already with sold-out screenings and high praise from critics in London, Stockholm and Glasgow and also had its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival in September last year.
The film is based on the memoir of the same name by André-Carl van der Merwe. In the film, we meet Nicholas van der Swart in the year 1981 when South Africa’s white minority government is embroiled in conflict on the southern Angolan border. Like all white men over the age of 16, Nicholas must complete two years of compulsory military service to defend the racist apartheid regime. The threat of communism and the so-called swart gevaar (black danger), the conscripts are told, are on their doorstep. Nicholas knows this is not the only danger he faces. The army is brutal, and his superiors pitiless, but when a connection forms between Nicholas and a fellow recruit, the harsh reality of what would happen if anyone found out reveals an even crueller wasteland.
We caught up with the film’s director Oliver Hermanus as he opens up on the decision to create and be involved in such an important film.
What inspired you to adapt André-Carl van der Merwe’s iconic memoir?
When I first read the book I was quite taken by the texture and detail it told of this part of our history. I did not know about the treatment of gay conscripts, about psychiatric Ward 22 or the damage that the system did to so many men and I felt very strongly that there was a power to Moffie that needed to be told on a cinema screen.
What was it about the story that resonated with you?
At the centre of this film there is a word: Moffie. Any gay man living in South Africa knows this word and has a relationship with it. It’s a weapon that has been used against us for so long. I felt a strong pull to explore my own history with this word – which ended up being a scene in the film. I think it was the want to denuclearise, to reform this word that was at the heart of my decision to make this film.
Issues of identity are and sexuality are more pertinent today than they were in 1981, when the story takes place, do you agree?
Absolutely. We are living in a global culture where we still see the persecution of the LGBT community all over the world. At the same time, never before has the voice of this global community been more heard. A film like Moffie is there to remind us of what has come before, what we have endured and suffered through and why it is important to never stop being vocal and proud.
For some, Moffie has a derogatory meaning, to others it’s a term of endearment. How do you see it?
I see it as a weapon. I avoid using the word. It still has stigma for me and making this film allowed me to talk to other gay men about their relationship with this word. For most, I think, it still carries pain. I am all for the act of appropriating it for good but like the book, I hope that having it as the title of the film will go some way to eroding the word’s toxicity.
With Skoonheid you delved in the psyche of a young man who becomes the object of desire of an older man, with Moffie you explore the sexuality of a gay man imprisoned by society and the laws of the apartheid government. What are your views on this?
Skoonheid was about repression and self-loathing where I would say that Moffie is about what comes before shame and indoctrination. The two films will of course go hand in hand, one might even say that Moffie plays as a prequel but I think their messages are very different and as much as Moffie is about a gay man’s journey through the SADF (South African Defense Force), it is also the journey of an entire generation of white men, gay and straight. The film rests its attention on them all.
Was it a difficult process from idea to screen? What were the challenges?
This has been a four-year journey! I would say that the major obstacle was the casting process. Because the film’s characters are all 18 or so, it’s a tough age group to cast. We spent more than a year finding our core cast and were quite blown away by the unseen talent in South Africa.’
Tell me about the cast and how you approached them to bring the characters to life?
The cast are made up of high school students, trained actors, untrained actors and even non-actors. They spent a good amount of time with a military advisor who put them through an SADF boot camp. They learnt how to shoot R1 rifles and of course they we were taught how to drill. I then spent a few weeks rehearsing with them in Cape Town and beyond that tried to fill their heads with as much history about the time as I could.
What do you hope audiences will get from watching Moffie?
I hope audiences will get an visceral experience. The film is heartfelt and emotive. No doubt, for some, it will conjure up memories of their own time in the military but most of all I think the film is a bit of tearjerker, so perhaps some tears?”
Tell me about some of the issues regarding being a Moffie that you deal with in the film?
The film’s primary focus is masculinity. It explores the way that white South African men have been made for over a century. How the apartheid system, the army and the conservative nature of this country fed young boys an ideology of superiority and hate.
Being a moffie in this context meant being a crime, being a problem, a mistake. How did you approach these issues as a filmmaker?
With a lot of research, ha-ha! For me, personally, it was sticking to the core idea that this was a system of hate and separation, and the intention of the conscription was to reinforce and protect that system. I want to show that process through the film, letting an audience witness and experience the indoctrination.
Why do you think it was so difficult for young conscripted men to deal with their gayness during this period in South African history?
Because of the simple fact that it was deemed criminal and it was dangerous. The society at that time was determined to keep gay men and women in the closet.
Do you think it has changed much, even with the new rainbow nation constitutional support?
In the army, I am not too sure. But in the general public, the has been a change. I guess the simple fact that I can make a film like this is testament to that.
Being gay has always been an issue when it comes to the military internationally. Why do you think this milieu makes it so confrontational?
I think it is the nature of the army – it is an inherently masculine, heterosexual space and is, to a large degree, inhabited by men. I think that with the context comes an expectation and an assumption that all men in the military should want to be heteronormative. Of course, we have now seen how that is changing.
Oliver Hermanus was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on 26 May, 1983, completed his Master of Arts degree at the London Film School and has won numerous awards for his work all over the world.