Director: Oliver Hermanus (South Africa, UK). Year of Release: 2019
South Africa, 1981. Apartheid is still in force, and the recent victory of Communists in Angola has given the régime an excuse to strengthen the military. All males over 16 – all white males, of course – must perform compulsory military service. Nicholas has just been called up. He now lives with his mother and stepfather, but his father pays him a surprize visit before he goes. Dad hands over a copy of Big Boobs magazine, saying “this is ammunition in case you need it”.
The train on the way to the military camp is full of testosterone. Most of the putative soldiers on the train look much older than 16, and have rippling muscles. There is a deeply homoerotic tinge running through the whole film, which has plenty of scenes of men bathing naked together or playing volleyball with the minimum of clothing. And yet at the same time, they are made fully aware that the worst thing that they could be in life would be gay, a nigger or a Communist.
The train stops at a station, where a black man is sitting on the platform. Almost unanimous jeering from the train call on him to stand up when he is in the presence of white men. One of the recruits gets off the train and walks menacingly towards the black man, throwing things at him. The scene is soon over, and the train moves on towards the training camp, but it is enough to show that the culture of toxic masculinity is entwined with one of White supremacy.
“Moffie” is an Afrikaans anti-gay slur which can roughly be translated as “faggot”. Boot camp is there to beat out any sense of effeteness out of the young soldiers. Apart from the constant beatings, they are encourages to discipline each other, playing a perverted form of spin the bottle, in which the “winners” are expected to engage each other in a fist fight. Anyone who tries to abstain from these fights is fully excluded.
Many reviews have compared Moffie to Full Metal Jacket, and this is part of my problem. This is less a gay film (though it was shown as part of the Kino International’s MonGay programme), than a(n anti-)war film. To be sure, it leaves us in no doubt that War Is Hell. Recruits end up killing themselves, and those who do not conform are sent to Ward 22, where their “deviant” behaviour is beaten out of them, or they are left in a catatonic state.
Nonetheless, it’s still a story of young men leading a boring life full of exercising, shooting and random sadism. Like most of the best anti-war film, it has decent politics, but it is inherently difficult to make a dull routine feel interesting. Above all, Moffie lacks emotion. Yes, it has good reason for this – to be able to survive in the brutalising army, the soldiers have to suppress all their natural emotions. But his does not make it any easier for an audience to show any empathy.
Moffie is also, inevitably, a film full of Manly Men – how could it be other? Again, different strokes for different folks, but I never had that much interest in watching Manly Men, particularly on my evening out. Yes, I know that this is, at heart a searing indictment of masculinity and what it means to be a man. Sure, I can appreciate it on that level. Nevertheless, I don’t find it so entertaining to watch big men being unduly violent and insensitive with each other.
Something else. Maybe I’m dumb, but a flashback in the first half of the film did confuse me slightly. Nicholas is a boy, at the swimming pool with his parents. He goes for a shower while his mother finishes the chapter of the book she’s reading. A large man picks up Nicholas and drags him to the people running the pool, accusing him of staring at one of the men in the showers. “Something must be done” shouts the irate man, “I have children who come here”.
We know what’s going on here, and who’s side we’re on. What is unclear to me is this: is the film insinuating that Nicholas was staring at the man, and this is a youthful sexual awakening? Or is this just a scene to show us the bigotry within apartheid South Africa, which lead to brutish self-assured men having way too much power and authority? Both readings are possible to me, but they seem to be saying quite different things. As said, it may be obvious and I’m just dumb.
There is an interesting discussion as whether Moffie is asking us to sympathise with the racist oppressor. On one level, this seems ridiculous – director Oliver Hermanus is himself Black. And yet the White world view is the only one we see. The only Black figures we see are made to suffer in a one dimensional fashion – feel more empathy seems to be invested in Nicholas’s traumas than in the life-endangering daily experiences of the unnamed Black characters.
Like the highly overrated Waltz with Bashir, which sees the massacres of Lebanese civilians as being primarily an Israeli trauma, Moffie does seem to be spending too much time in the company of people who already get too much attention. It is a well made film which is most definitely on the right side and trying to do something interesting. All the more problem that I just got a little bit bored with it all.