The main character of Oliver Hermanus’ harrowing “Moffie” from 1981 in South Africa is a handsome, white 18-year-old. In the country’s apartheid system, he is a member of the ruling class, but not an insider.
Shy, shy and withdrawn, Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is drafted into the army as part of the regulated military service for white men over the age of 16. There the movie’s title – an anti-gay arc of Afrikaans – isn’t pointed at him, but it’s tossed all over the place – a pervasive threat of exclusion and abuse. In the brutal basic training it is as if bullets are already flying dangerously close to Nicholas.
But “Moffie”, which opens in theaters and on demand on Friday, is more than a coming-of-age story about a young gay man in an unprogressive society. By following Nicholas into basic training, the film plunges into the dark heart of apartheid and a cauldron of destructive masculinity. There, young men are indoctrinated by the barking of drill sergeants into an ideology of fear, oppression and nationalism that was widespread in South Africa in the 1980s, but also in most other places or eras. Nicholas was drafted into an army of intolerance that sees him as an enemy.
The images of Hermanus and cameraman Jamie D. Ramsay are very intimate, tactile and lively from the start. Braam du Toit’s score sets a threatening tone. The camera pans over the train taking Nicholas to the barracks as it slowly winds its way across the grassland. We only see his life briefly beforehand; His father gives him a girls’ magazine for “ammunition”. On the train, a soon-to-be friend (Stassen, played by Ryan de Villiersoffers) offers him a drink. When Nicholas refuses, Stassen replies: “Are you sure? Do you know where we are going “
You are training for the border war with Angola and the perceived threat of communism. Training on the orders of Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) is strenuous. While suffering from the hot sun, they are brainwashed not only into warriors but also devout communists. “Black Savages” and “Moffies” are all supposed to be “cured” by killing them. Some of the scenes of bodies in the desert hint at Claire Denis’ “Beau Travail”. Life in the barracks nods to Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”.
For Nicholas, this means hiding except for a stolen look or a moment of understanding someone else in the same situation. The performance of the distinctive growler is so quiet and inward that Nicholas remains hidden from us, so to speak. A single look back at his previous life gives an indication of how he was conditioned to feel guilty just about his sexuality. Over time, Nicholas realizes that he is not alone, and our sense of the many lives – both black and white – broken, beaten, or left dead by a hideous other only expands.
It’s a common perspective for an apartheid movie that the director – who is gay and multiracial – has admitted that he initially withdrew. But this view only makes Hermanus’ mission more laudable. His film, taken from a novel by André Carl van de Merwe, is like an inside job. By digging into apartheid’s brutal propaganda, in his extremely expressive, painfully sad fourth film, Hermanus captured a mean machine at work – one that will last long after the end of apartheid.
“Moffie,” an IFC Films release, is not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America, but it does contain extremely violent scenes. Running time: 106 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP film writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP