Basic Training Proves Anything-But-Basic In The Powerful South African Drama 'Moffie'

21 hours ago
Originally published on April 6, 2021 10:20 pm

It's Capetown, 1981. A family gathers for what looks like a back-slapping birthday party — but is actually a farewell.

In the South African drama Moffie, Nicholas, a teenager who's as subdued as his relatives are raucous, will head off in the morning for military service that's compulsory for boys between 16 and 20. White boys that is. This being the era of apartheid, brutal segregation, and white minority rule, his basic training will prove anything-but-basic.

This evening, though, is all about family and sentiment. Mom's being brave. Nick's divorced dad has even dropped by to do a little male bonding with a gift — a girlie magazine — "to use as ammunition, you know." Nicholas pretty clearly would've preferred a hug.

On the train to boot camp it becomes clear that he's part of a minority within the white minority — English in a society dominated by aggressively racist Dutch Afrikaners steeped in toxic masculinity.

When an elderly Black man seated in a railway station doesn't immediately stand in the boys' presence, there's hell to pay.

And at the training they're headed for, their drill instructor reinforces all of that vitriol.

"Black savages," he says "are on our doorstep, so close we can smell them. But we will defend our borders, our freedom, our women, our children. Right, scabs?"

Films about military training, from Full Metal Jacket to Private Benjamin, have certain things in common: Tough sergeants, innocent recruits, grueling field exercises. This one has a little something extra, as Nicholas keeps his head down — on the field, in the barracks, in the showers.

Perhaps especially in the showers, for the state has another enemy — one that further separates Nicholas from the guys with whom he's serving, and that gives the film its title.

"Moffie" is the Afrikaans slur for gay people. It suggests weakness, abnormality — and when two men are dragged in front of the unit, bruised and brutalized, to have the term chanted at them, there's no question how the others are supposed to feel.

Writer-director Oliver Hermanus is working here from an autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe, but he gives the film an air of lived experience.

While the director is gay, he doesn't share Nicholas's race or background, and he was born after the events depicted in the film. But he's made a movie about how the era's coercing of white South African boys to become a certain type of macho, aggressive man still affects South African society.

Hermanus has avoided making a relationship movie, though he certainly could have. Kai Luke Brummer who plays Nicholas, and Ryan De Villiers who plays the gentle giant with whom he forms an attachment, look and act like younger versions of Guy Pearce and Rupert Everett.

The film's point, though, is not to expose the pain of a few servicemen, but to explore the violence done to society by their persecution.

Hermanus has noted in interviews that the language in the film is designed to be triggering. The word "communist" he told The Guardian when the film premiered at Cannes in 2019, was long interchangeable in South Africa with "terrorist," which was interchangeable with "Black man." Just as "moffie" was interchangeable with "pedophile," which was interchangeable with "atheist."

The point, he said, was to tag someone — to otherize and demonize. And the quietly anguished conclusion of his film suggests that the effect of so much institutional hatred was to leave a generation traumatized.

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Films about military training, from "Full Metal Jacket" to "Private Benjamin" have certain things in common like tough sergeants, innocent recruits, grueling field exercises. And you can say all of that about the new South African film "Moffie." But critic Bob Mondello says this is one film about basic training that is anything but basic.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Cape Town, South Africa, 1981. A family gathers for what looks like a birthday party, but is actually a farewell.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Thank you all for being with us to send off my first born, Nicholas, to do his military service.

MONDELLO: Nicholas is as subdued as his relatives are raucus. Serving is compulsory for boys between 16 and 20 - white boys, that is. This is the era of apartheid - brutal segregation and white minority rule. This evening, though, is all about family. Nick's divorced dad has even dropped by for a little male bonding.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I got you something...

MONDELLO: A girly magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) ...To use as ammunition, you know.

MONDELLO: Nicholas would have preferred a hug, but, well. On the train to boot camp, it becomes clear he's part of a minority within the white minority - English in a society dominated by aggressively racist Dutch Afrikaners steeped in toxic masculinity. When an elderly Black man seated in a railway station doesn't immediately stand in the boy's presence, there's hell to pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS SMASHING)

MONDELLO: And at the training they're headed for, their lieutenant reinforces all of that. Black savages, he says...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: ...Are on our doorstep...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: ...So close we can smell them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: But we will defend our borders...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: ...Our freedom...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: ...Our women and our children.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: Small wonder Nicholas keeps his head down on the field, in the barracks, in the showers, perhaps especially in the showers, for the state has another enemy, one that further separates Nicholas from the guys he's serving with and that gives the film its title. The word moffie is the Afrikaans' slur for gay people. It suggests weakness, abnormality. And when two men are dragged in front of the unit, bruised and brutalized...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

MONDELLO: There's no question how the others are supposed to feel.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Moffie.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Moffie.

MONDELLO: Writer-director Oliver Hermanus is working here from a novel, but he gives the film an air of lived experience. While the director is gay, he doesn't share Nicholas's race or background. And he was born after the events depicted in the film. He's made a movie about how the era's coercing of white South African boys to become a certain type of macho, aggressive man still affects South African society.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MOFFIE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Do whatever you can to stay invisible.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I'm not like you.

MONDELLO: Hermanus has avoided making a relationship movie, though he certainly could have. Kai Luke Brummer, who plays Nicholas, and Ryan de Villiers, who plays the man with whom he forms an attachment look and act like younger versions of Guy Pearce and Rupert Everett.

The film's point, though, is not exposing the pain of a few servicemen, but exposing the violence done to society by their persecution. Hermanus has noted in interviews that the language in the film is designed to be triggering. The word communist, he says, was long interchangeable in South Africa with terrorist, which was interchangeable with Black man, just as moffie was interchangeable with pedophile, which was interchangeable with atheist. The point was to tag someone, to otherize and demonize. And the effect of so much institutional hatred suggests moffie was to leave a generation traumatized.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.