‘The thing we have in common as South Africans is apartheid’

Oliver Hermanus’s new film shows the brutality of army life for white men defending the regime

As a black South African filmmaker, Oliver Hermanus understandably hadn’t given much thought to the suffering of the ruling white community under apartheid. André Carl van der Merwe’s Moffie, an autobiographical novel based on the diaries the author kept as a teenager during his compulsory National Service, prompted a rethink.

“I didn’t really realise the totality of it,” says Hermanus. “I was told there were a million men conscripted in the space of 12 or 13 years. I mean the South African white population is only 7 or 8 million. That made me look and re-evaluate every white man I know who’s over the age of 45. You see them in a different way. They were trained to be the foot soldiers of apartheid, to embody its ideology and protect it. In the beginning I did wonder why I should make a film about the suffering of white South Africans during apartheid. But where we are right now in South Africa, it’s become really important that we understand that the thing we have in common as South Africans is apartheid. For the majority of South Africans, it was more than damaging: it was the utter denial of their existence. But it damaged us all in some way.”

Hermanus’s fourth feature, Moffie, an adaptation of van der Merwe’s book, is as impactful as we’ve come to expect from the director of Beauty (Skoonheid). Set in 1981 as South Africa’s white government is heading into conflict on the southern Angolan border, the film follows Nicholas (newcomer Kai Luke Brummer) who – in common with all 16-year-olds – is facing two years of compulsory military service in order to defend the apartheid regime from the threat of communism and “die swart gevaar” (the ‘black danger’).

The brutality of army life becomes even more unbearable when Nicholas feels attracted to a fellow recruit. The title of the film, Moffie, is a loaded and derogatory Afrikaans term, one that carries the threat of Ward 22, a notorious unit in Pretoria where outed homosexual soldiers were experimented on in order to “cure” them. The term doesn’t have a direct English translation.

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“It’s interesting because the word is not quite faggot,” explains Hermanus. “It’s a word that’s more complex than that. It’s mainly used against boys to tell boys how to be boys. It’s a masculine weapon used to define the borders of behaviour. ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, or you’re a moffie.’

“One of those things is being gay or touching or kissing another boy. But there are all these other things. So that’s how the word is used here. As a kind of barricade. I’m grateful that foreign territories are not translating it, because that would be weird.”

Making the film allowed the director to talk to other gay South African men about their relationship with the word “moffie”.

“A lot of gay men do use the word to self-define,” says Hermanus. “It has been appropriated in a way. Many South African men described how they had taken it on and reclaimed it. But with a word like that, it’s all about context. Who’s using it and what is their intention? It can still be a weapon.”

The day after Moffie premiered at the Venice Film Festival, thousands took to the streets in South Africa to protest against a murder “epidemic” against women. Back in its home country, the film immediately became part of a larger conversation about toxic masculinity and generational guilt.

“It was a very interesting moment,” says Hermanus. “We suddenly became topical. Here was a movie talking about the breeding of violence and toxic masculinity at a moment when people are talking about gender-based violence in South Africa. That has only gotten worse. We’re in lockdown right now. I just read a tweet that in the last seven days there have been 87,000 phone calls to an emergency line regarding domestic abuse.”

I think my father wanted to disown me when I said I wanted
to be a filmmaker

Hermanus was born in Cape Town in 1983, seven years before Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.

“My parents were political activists,” says the director. “Because I’m from a coloured family, where we lived and the schools that I went to and the way we were raised, were all impacted by apartheid. One day I’ll make a comedy because my parents did funny things like burying books in the garden and forgetting where they were and then after apartheid had ended, it was like the scene from Fantastic Mr Fox as they dug all these holes.

“My parents operated in a quite particular way. We lived in a very small town at one point during apartheid. And the thing of white beaches and non-white beaches? My mother broke that law constantly.”

The writer-director started making amateur films as a teenager before completing a Bachelor of Arts degree in film, media and visual studies at the University of Cape Town. After graduation, he worked as a press photographer with a national news agency. He completed his Master of Arts degree at the London Film School, after receiving a scholarship in 2006. It was, he notes, an odd career choice for someone from his background.

“I think my father wanted to disown me when I said I wanted to be a filmmaker,” he laughs.

“When apartheid ended it was the first time that people like me were allowed to go to university and study things like medicine or law. Or to have more senior public positions. All the coloured families wanted their kids to be doctors and lawyers and scientists and economists. We were building a new society. So wanting to be a filmmaker was like a death knell. It was completely unexpected.”

In the South African context there was nobody who looked like me who made films

Over the past decade, South Africa is an increasingly popular location for Hollywood studios. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), The Dark Tower (2017), and Maze Runner: The Death Cure (2018) were all (at least partly) shot there. But save for a few name breakthroughs, notable Neil Blomkamp and Gavin Hood, it’s an industry that isn’t as large as its population might lead one to expect. That has proved an additional challenge for Hermanus.

“In the South African context there was nobody who looked like me who made films,” he says. “There was nobody from my background. There was no one who shared the same race. In that way I’m in a strange space. I looked at other filmmakers when I left film school in London, filmmakers like Almodovar who works in his own country and makes cinema for that country and has a relationship with his country. The ambition was always to be able to do that.

“Our history of cinema is not as developed or as vast as European cinema or Asian cinema or American cinema. It’s a frustration to make films for an audience that’s not necessarily there yet. The big thing about South African audiences is that they find it really hard to go to the movies and look at themselves or look at our past or our present. It’s stressful for them. There’s a legacy of going to the movies to escape.”

Hermanus’s socially engaged films have, nonetheless, found favour with international audiences. His graduation feature film, Shirley Adams, about a poverty-stricken woman and her desperate determined efforts to care for her disabled son, premiered in competition at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2009.

His second feature, Beauty, created a considerable stir in 2011. A hard-hitting drama concerning a married, middle-aged Afrikaans businessman who becomes dangerously obsessed with the son of an old friend, the film was selected for Un Certain Regard and won the Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival.

Weirdly, there are more people who are in a position to commit to a film like Moffie at home than might have been prepared to get in their car or on a tube to go to the cinema

“My parents could never imagined that one of their children would be a filmmaker,” says Hermanus. “That was just beyond any kinds of reality. Ironically, my parents bred this interest in to me. They showed us a lot of movies: very interesting movies, very adult and serious films. They were very political people who saw cinema as an agent of social change.”

Speaking by video call (while under Covid-19 lockdown) from Barrytown, some three hours’ drive from Cape Town, the filmmaker is circumspect about Moffie – a very cinematic film characterised by breath-taking visuals and Braam du Toit’s thrilling score – missing out on a theatrical release due to cinema closures.

“I’m fairly optimistic,” he says. “Moffie is the kind of film that people should see in cinemas. I can’t help but think of our sound engineers who created this fantastic three-dimensional soundscape. That’s going to be lost if you’re watching it at home. But there is a bigger market at home. Weirdly, there are more people who are in a position to commit to a film like Moffie at home than might have been prepared to get in their car or on a tube to go to the cinema.”

Moffie is on Curzon Home Cinema from April 27th