Oliver Hermanus' South African gay military drama offers a flawed theory of masculine hatred
A title card tells the audience that our story takes place during Apartheid, precisely the thing that makes the disorienting opening sequences of Oliver Hermanus’s Moffie – an adaptation of André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel – suspicious. The misguided abdication of responsibility in Laszlo Nemes’s Son of Saul comes to mind in this first act, where 19-year-old Nicholas, a closeted gay man, is introduced as a new conscript to the South African Defence Force in 1981, dispatched to help defend the border from potential invasion by Communist-led Angola.
At first, Hermanus gives into the same temptations as Nemes, isolating the protagonist in the frame via soft-focus and handheld verisimilitude, distancing him from the barbarisms committed by the brusque, moustachioed drill sergeants. One worries that, should Hermanus show us Nicholas in a warzone, he might pull the same trick to the much more damaging effect of removing blame for war atrocities from the protagonist, simply because he is the protagonist.
But Hermanus’s imprecision slowly, purposefully, gives way to tight, controlled direction. He attempts to construct the white male army drone, in all its self-destructiveness and hyperreal masculine image of muscly, heterosexual perfection, as the root of South Africa’s hatred. In the heady world of military outposts, being gay is a sin, and speaking anything other than Afrikaans (considered for years by oppressors to be ‘the white language’) will separate you from the herd. For Hermanus, the military is no more adult and honourable than a school playground filled with bullies.
Released 24 Apr on Curzon Home Cinema