The story of Nicholas van der Swart – a young closeted gay man, conscripted for the South African Defence Force – is one of repressive aggression. Based on the autobiographical teenage diary of André Carl van der Merwe, MOFFIE follows Nick from his train journey to the Angolan border amidst apartheid in 1981 to his completion, or survival, of the brutal military service.
War films typically convey a sense of trepidation journeying into unfamiliar enemy territory. That sense of unease is recreated here as Nick (Kai Luke Brummer) keeps his head down on that boisterous train, in scenes often more akin to a horror film thanks to the anxious and discordant string score, accompanied by an off-rhythm plucking. It isn’t that he’ll be on the front lines that looms large; it is the ultra-masculine culture of shared dormitories at a camp designed to preserve white supremacy.
It’s no safe place for homosexuality, but director Oliver Hermanus is careful to highlight the absurdity of that. The boys fight topless for sport, their sweat and muscles tangled together, a combination of violence and homoeroticism. Their scrapping partners are decided by spin the bottle, a game usually reserved for adolescent parties where teenagers with burgeoning sex lives have their first kisses. These young men are quick to label a couple caught together ‘moffies’ – translated in subtitles as ‘faggots’ – and punish them with the only language they know: physicality.
Nick is careful to keep his head down but ends up sharing a trench with the quiet Dylan after a night of digging in the rain. There’s little opportunity for alone time, although they form a quiet and romantic bond told through glances and lingering. Before long they are separated, with Nick spending the rest of his time at the camp wondering to where Dylan transferred. The dangers of this same-sex attraction are on full display as the film makes sharks of Nick’s dorm mates. They call him gay for owning a picture of a male relative, but he throws them off his scent by trading a porn magazine his dad gave him. In a flashback, we see an incident at a public pool where a man accused Nick of being a pervert as a young boy for stealing a look at a man in the shower. His dad’s gift of a magazine, already uncomfortable, is less ‘you’re a man now’ and more ‘try women’.
Although apartheid takes a backseat, homosexuality is portrayed as a political and rebellious act. The nationalist regime is one of racism and ultra-conservative Christianity, where anything other than these prescriptions is horrifyingly suppressed, populating MOFFIE with strong language and scenes of bloody victims.
Much like JOJO RABBIT’s glossing over of the Holocaust in the background of its narrative, there will be a debate about whether MOFFIE does a disservice to the severity of apartheid. Nick shows little in the way of an opinion about what he’s being made to do. While that quiet submission is clearly framed as a survival mechanism, accepting that his training is to kill black people is a significant part of his story, which the film never lends the appropriate amount of consideration. Without it, there’s a worry the film asks for sympathy for a character who is made to uphold white supremacy, with no solidarity for its victims.
That ideological consideration is more implicitly absent from the boys’ training. They are told they are “no longer someone” and just “bloody, puss-filled, useless scabs,” there to act as killing machines because they are told to be. It’s a shocking contrast from the locker room banter of ‘your mum’ jokes and farting. There’s a tragic inevitability to the cycle of hate, where these two-year cycles of conscription carry on simply because they carry on, the banality of evil as young men obey the generation before them. Passed down is hatred and intolerance and the need to survive however possible.
It’s never a pleasant watch, and its lack of engagement with apartheid might be too much to overlook for some. We are there for some of the most gruelling moments of Nick’s military service, always anxious about whether he’ll be found out, willing him to make it through to the other side in one piece, physically and mentally. But passivity is also political, and his unquestioning attitude gives the film some big moral conundrums it never quite broaches.