- VENICE 2019: Young homosexuals persecuted by the South African army in the 1980s are at the heart of Oliver Hermanus’ fourth film
To be gay in the army. It’s a brutal affair, whatever the army and whatever the latitude. Oliver Hermanus, however, presents us with an unprecedented geographical viewpoint: that of South Africa. Moffie [+see also:
film profile], the name of his film in competition in the Orizzonti section of the Venice International Film Festival, is a derogatory Afrikaans term meaning queer. Over the years, the film world has given us many stories on Apartheid, but who would have thought that a white man living in South Africa in the 1980s could also have been considered an enemy of the State, condemned to anything but an easy life?
The Border War between South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola brought many young, white South Africans to fight in the border region. Hermanus’ film illustrates the extent to which military service instilled the ideology of white supremacism and racial intolerance in hundreds of thousands of boys, who had barely reached eighteen years of age, but how it also impressed on them the necessity of expunging homosexuality from South African society. Moffie is the film adaptation of André-Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical book and tells the tale of a sixteen-year-old boy from the provinces, Nicholas Van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), who, like all those his age, is obliged to carry out two years of military service in order to uphold Apartheid and to repel “die swart gevaar” (black danger). Despite his surname, which he inherits from his stepfather, Nicholas is a rooinek: an English-speaking South African. The year is 1981 and the white minority government of South Africa is engaged in a border war with Angola. During his gruelling training with the South African Defence Force, Nicholas meets another recruit, Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), with whom he one day shares a furtive kiss in his dormitory. The two boys then find themselves in the trenches together, sharing the same sleeping bag. After a few days, the notorious Sargent Brand (Hilton Pelser) puts Dylan in detention, while the other recruits get to enjoy a weekend of leave. On his return, Nicholas discovers that Dylan has disappeared. Someone confirms that he’s been sent to the infamous Section 22, where drug addicts and psychopaths are locked away and treated. Nicholas, meanwhile, is put on the front line, where he kills an enemy solider. He’s traumatised by his army experience and, once discharged, he goes looking for Dylan.
Oliver Hermanus doesn’t push too far on the theme of homosexuality as the film expounds the cruelty and senselessness of military life (echoing Tigerland by Joel Schumacher and Full Metal Jacket by Kubrick). And yet, with great humility, Moffie nonetheless succeeds in reminding us just how difficult it was to be a homosexual until just a few years ago in many countries, how it still is difficult today and how important it is that we continue to make our voices heard. The cast is composed of high-school students and both professional and non-professional actors. This is the fourth feature film directed by Hermanus, following his 2009 debut with Shirley Adams, presented at the Locarno Film Festival, while his second work Beauty [+see also:
film profile] was screened in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival in 2011 where it scooped the Queer Palm. His third film, The Endless River [+see also:
film profile], was presented at the 72nd Venice Film Festival, making it the first South African work to be invited to participate in the Competition.
Moffie is produced by the British firm Portobello Pictures, in association with the director’s outfit Penzance Films and with the support of South Africa’s Department of Trade and Industry. Foreign sales are in the hands of Portobello Film Sales.
(Translated from Italian)
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