Film & TV Muse Interviews

Interview: Oliver Hermanus

Sam Harding speaks to the South African director about Moffie, his Apartheid-set drama of war and sexuality.

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Image Credit: Curzon Home Cinema

The international reception to the title of the latest film by Oliver Hermanus, which went untranslated worldwide as Moffie, was relatively smooth— requiring only a dash of context to explain the particular meaning of this strange, almost cute word. But in South Africa, it was met with a mixture of discomfort and resistance, sometimes going unspoken by anchors on local news channels while the massive billboards advertising the film’s cinematic release went on to draw outraged complaints. Because the word ‘Moffie’ is a homophobic slur, intentionally used here in order to stir up difficult feelings and conversations. ‘That was the point, the title was a provocation. It’s really meant to catch your attention and ultimately make you feel a little bit uncomfortable,’ says Hermanus, speaking on the phone from his Cape Town home about his moving and raw, yet delicately restrained, 2020 film.

In the end, it was the billboards that would go on to stay up even longer than was planned and the movie that saw its cinematic debut cancelled, both as a result of South Africa's sweeping national lockdown last March. And although it’s a film that deserves the acoustic and visual experience of the big screen, Hermanus regards its suddenly shifted release onto streaming services as a silver-lined catch-22. For not only could South Africans now watch the film in the privacy of their own homes, instead of travelling to go and see a film called Moffie in public, but the streaming figures revealed another layer of secrecy within the heightened proximity of family members enforced by lockdown. ‘A lot of the time Moffie was being watched by people between the hours of midnight and 4am,’ he explains, in an image of concealment that lays bare the prevailing conservatism and repressed traumas that the film uncovers in South Africa’s Afrikaner households and oppressive history.

Moffie situates its titular slur in the ideological conditioning of Apartheid, where hyper-masculine dogma was inseparable from the white minority government’s policy of racial segregation. To be a Moffie, the opening credits explain, is to be weak, effeminate, illegal. Set in the 1980s, when the compulsory conscription of young, white men into the South African Defence Force saw an entire generation armed and indoctrinated into upholding the regime against black, communist forces, the movie follows gay recruit Nicholas van der Swart as he undergoes the brutalising experience of encampment life.

Combining textured visuals of the natural landscape with those of male bodies in the crucible of war and adolescence, the compositions of Moffie are rooted in realism and an uneasy closeness to the history being depicted. Most of the men from this period are still alive, and recreating the conditions and appearance of their military experience meant scouring the internet for images and encountering the many Facebook groups in which veterans publicised their days on the front-lines. As a result, the masculine universe which Hermanus sought to recapture is one of testosterone-fuelled camaraderie clothed in very short khaki shorts. ‘When you look at it now, it all looks very homoerotic,’ says Hermanus, ‘but at the time… it was all very normal.’ What Moffie explores at the centre of this experience is an atmosphere of deep shame, a looming whip that hangs suspended in the menacing string score and leaves heart-wrenching lashes as these youths are pressured and goaded into a toxic and numbing ideal of manhood, or as Hermanus puts it: ‘It’s shaming them into conformity, shaming them into being a certain kind of man with a certain kind of politics.’

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Image Credit: Curzon Home Cinema

And it is amidst this stifling atmosphere that Nicholas, played by Kai Brummer, finds himself nurturing a secretive relationship with a fellow recruit, one that can only explore its tenderness beneath fronts of machismo and the grim imminence of war. In this underlying language of looks and glances, Hermanus uncovers not only the tension of forbidden romance, but a particular gaze between actor and filmmaker. ‘I like to feel like it’s real, like there’s a reality unfolding,’ he says of his tendency to avoid calling cut on a scene. Instead he leaves the camera rolling and observes his actors once they’ve said their lines and hit their cues, watching their reactions and improvisations as they continue to live in that fictional world a little longer.

In his 2011 film Beauty, this effect was at the centre of the many long, unwavering shots he used to convey the voyeurism of his central character, looking past the mundane and suburban to uncover violence and obsession beneath their surfaces. Describing this effect on his audience, Hermanus talks about our instinctual need for the cut, to have the momentum of the film continue uninterrupted without noticing the editing or the uncanny point at which we appear to be consciously watching life itself. These lingering shots are one of many ways in which Hermanus seeks to trigger unsettling questions about a work of fiction and the often disturbing realities being depicted, bringing into focus the historical experience of both audiences and actors alike.

For instance, in one early scene in Moffie, a train full of white recruits subject a lone black man standing on a station platform to a barrage of hate speech and abuse. A distressing sight both on the film's set and onscreen, the fine line between history and filmmaking was no less plain to see in the performance of the white extras in the scene— who required no script in order to effortlessly spew a torrent of horrific racial insults for the camera.

’In a movie like Moffie, where I spend so much time in the headspace of white people, is that experience in any way traumatising for the white audience… or do they just recognise it as history?’

In many ways Moffie poses itself as such a question, seeking to expose the internalised legacies of Apartheid that linger in modern South Africa as they do across the introspective frames of his films. ‘Every single scene of every single film I’ve made has an element of trauma in it because that’s ultimately South Africa’s key theme,’ he continues, expounding upon the importance of telling stories about the past through characters, identifying with their internal journeys and their sometimes disturbing experience of the world around them.

As such, it’s a movie that resonates internationally as a coming-of-age story, a portrait of toxic masculinity, and as a standout in the directorial catalogue of Oliver Hermanus, who is set to begin shooting his next film this year. Living will star Bill Nighy and Aimee Lou Wood (Sex Education) in a life-affirming remake of the Akira Kurosawa classic penned by Nobel and Booker Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro.

Editor's Note: Moffie is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema

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