Moffie – a tale of secrets within the South African Apartheid battles of the 1980s
MOFFIE explores the life of a closeted young boy serving his mandatory military service during Apartheid in 1980s South Africa. To be a moﬃe is to be weak, eﬀeminate, illegal. The year is 1981 and South Africa’s white minority government is embroiled in a conﬂict on the southern Angolan border. Like all white boys over the age of 16, Nicholas Van der Swart must complete two years of compulsory military service to defend the Apartheid regime. The threat of communism and “die swart gevaar” (the so-called black danger) is at an all-time high. But that’s not the only danger Nicholas faces. He must survive the brutality of the army – something that becomes even more diﬃcult when a connection is sparked between him and a fellow recruit. This fourth feature from South African director Oliver Hermanus, is an adaptation of André-Carl van der Merwe’s iconic memoir. The film serves as a poignant period piece exposing the psychological violence of war and its institutionalized homophobia.
It’s hard to believe that it has only been 40 years since South Africa was ruled under the apartheid regime. This film is a stark reminder of what it was like to live during these turbulent times of racism and violence. As a requirement of the government at the time, any male 16 and older was required to fulfill their duty in the army. Young, innocent “boys” were brought into the wild and trained to become “men”, and by men I mean thugs and killers.
This film chronicles the life of one youth, Nicholas, who unwillingly must follow government orders, along with the urging of his parents to make them and their country proud. It’s a long drawn out story with many harsh depictions of what army life is like. These “kids” are treated like animals by their own country men, acting as their superior sergeants, all in the name of “toughing them up” for the call of duty. Along with the cruel behaviour thrown upon them is the added group mentality of teenage boys wanting to rebel, and in the prime of their sexuality. For someone just discovering they maybe different from the others, this is as damaging mentality as the havoc of war. To be outed would mean you’re sent off to Ward 22, for having a mental incapacity.
When one of his comrades asks Nicolas to sleep alongside him in the trenches one night for the purpose of keeping warm, he begins to discover he has feelings other than comradery. Later there’s a tender kiss on the lips, and then one day Dylan Stassen disappears from the troops, sent to Ward 22, under the assumption his homosexuality was discovered. Nicolas is distraught to have lost his friend, and possible lover.
There’s one flashback scene to when Nicolas was a youth and caught staring at another boy in the shower, which is never discussed again. Once his two-year term is up, he returns home to his proud parents, and is determined to find Dylan again. They end up reconnecting, and the spark is seen igniting within Nicolas as they head to be beach for the day, yet that initial spark may not be the same for Dylan anymore.
Overall, it’s a war-driven movie at its core, yet the few tender moments that happen throughout show the true toll war has on someone, not only physically, but mentally as well.
MOFFIE is available to rent on AppleTV on April 9th, and will be available this summer on IFC Films Unlimited.
I knew very little about the Border War between South West Africa (now Namibia) and Angola. I also knew very little about the generation of white South African men who were forced to ﬁght that war. In fairness, I have never given much thought to the hardships of white South Africans. In my mind, informed by the hardships and struggles of my own Coloured parents and their parents before them, all white people in South Africa have had it easy. For the most part this is true. The system favoured them and it was wholly unfair and unforgivable. As a result I never considered young, gay, white youth living in the 80’s, never saw them as enemies of the state. This is a ﬁlm about such a youth. White, eighteen and coming to terms with his illegality.
There have been many stories told over the past two decades about the Apartheid system and the lives it ruined, the heroes it spawned and the toll that it took on the heritage of South African people. However here is a seemingly more complex point of view – a hidden history of the generation of white men who had to endure the Apartheid propaganda machine. For many their conscription into the army destroyed them because it forcibly imprinted upon nearly one million white boys a diseased ideology of white supremacy, racial intolerance and the desire to eradicate homosexuality and communism from South African society. Even though he is part of the ruling race – our lead, Nicholas’s life is at risk. He is property of the state, there to defend the indefensible without question or resistance. He is commanded to relinquish himself to the cause of the government which could so easily lead to his death. The war he is ﬁghting is ultimately pointless and the lives lost are lost in vain. The terror that was inﬂicted on the innocent was racially motivated and in the end no side could claim true victory. Our story is Nicholas’s journey to overcome, not without loss and suﬀering but in the end with an acceptance of who he is in ‘that’ South Africa.
It must be mentioned that the last of this generation of men, moulded to be soldiers not just for the border but for the streets of South Africa, are still alive today. They are fathers and brothers, sons and uncles. Very few speak about their time in the army, as if the militarisation of these boys near the fall of Apartheid never happened. But the memory lingers and even for those who were not gay or politically averse to the system, the damage is signiﬁcant and present. This is a ﬁlm about how white South African men have been made for nearly a century.
Our title, Moﬃe, is a potent and derogatory Afrikaans term for ‘gay’. It is a South African weapon of shame, used exclusively to oppress gay or eﬀeminate men. When you are called this word for the ﬁrst time you start to hide from it . You begin to edit yourself, it is when you ﬁrst pretend you are someone else. The shame is instant, the realisation that you are visible. People can tell you apart. All you know about that word is that it means you are bad. You are reject-able and unlikable and unacceptable and during Apartheid, just like a black man or woman, you were a crime. And so you needed to put it away, you needed to cover it up, kill it – the moﬃe inside you.
About the Author
Bryen Dunn is a freelance journalist with a focus on travel, lifestyle, entertainment and hospitality. He has an extensive portfolio of celebrity interviews with musicians, actors and other public personalities. He enjoys discovering delicious eats, tasting spirited treats, and being mesmerized by musical beats.