Oliver Hermanus Reveals the Secrets of Apartheid-Era Gay Drama 'Moffie'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday July 7, 2021
Originally published on May 21, 2021

Matthew Vey  and Kai Luke Brummer in 'Moffie'
Matthew Vey and Kai Luke Brummer in 'Moffie'  (Source:Courtesy of IFC Films)

Oliver Hermanus' fourth feature film, "Moffie," follows a young conscript in 1980s apartheid-era South Africa, at a time when not only were racial divides in the country deeply etched and vigorously maintained. But young men over the age of 16 were drafted into the army to fight in the 23-year-long border war against Cuban-backed neighbor Angola. South African society wasn't just deeply racist, but intensely homophobic, especially within the ranks of the military.

The film's main character, Nicholas (played by Kai Luke Brummer) has already had a traumatic experience: When he was a boy, another child's father flew into a rage after assuming that the young Nicholas was ogling boys in a shower room, a situation that quickly turned vicious and ugly. Now, as a young adult, Nicholas begins to realize that he's attracted to other men when he meets fellow conscript Dylan Stassen (played by Ryan de Villiers). He can't do much about that attraction — especially not with the officers in charge of his basic training, such as the sadistic Sgt. Brand (Hilton Pelser), just waiting to rain down abuse on anyone suspected of being a "moffie," a pejorative South African slang word for a gay man.

The film has drawn glowing plaudits from the LGBTQ press and mainstream media alike, with Hermanus' direction — and his adaptation of the 2006 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by André Carl van der Merwe — being singled out for praise. A common comparison is with Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," but there's also more than a touch of Peter Weir's classic "Gallipoli" about the film. Either way, "Moffie" has, in short order, gained the status of a new LGBTQ cinema classic.

EDGE had a chance to chat with Hermanus about the film and his creative choices in bringing the novel to the big screen, his views on making gay films, and the damaging effects of South Africa's apartheid system on the people — gay and straight, Black, white, or other — who came of age during that nation's infamous era.

Filmmaker Oliver Hermanus  (Source: Courtesy of IFC Films)

EDGE: What drew you to André Carl van der Merwe's 2006 book "Moffie," in particular, as source material for a film?

Oliver Hermanus: This was an interesting journey. I was offered the book, read the book, and then had another conversation with the producers about the book. They had kind of framed it to me as, "We don't know what it is about the book that we might be interested in exploring, but maybe you could tell us what might interest you, and if it seems that those interests are the same [then we can make a movie]." I think what I took from the book was a curiosity about this generation of men and this experience that they went through — this sort of little detail of apartheid, this element of the bigger narrative that I wasn't as familiar with. Initially, I thought it wasn't something that I wanted to make, because it was asking me to make a movie about the trauma of white men. Conceptually, it just seemed kind of wrong. The more I thought about it, I decided that what was wrong about it might be what was right about it. That was when I decided that I had an in, and to develop it.

EDGE: Had you had a chance to confer with van der Merwe when it came to adapting his work to the screen?

Oliver Hermanus: The first thing I did was speak with him, and what I wanted to know from him was what was true and what was kind of invented. I needed to know if the emotional structures of the book were imagined or real, and he told me what the differences were. In doing so, he was giving me permission; because the book is semi- autobiographical and not fully autobiographical, there was the freedom for me to add, as well. I would say that we added a hell of a lot. The book was our starting point, and we went to through the two-year, almost three-year, process, and the movie is the product of the process, not so much of the novel.

Kai Luke Brummer in 'Moffie'  (Source: Courtesy of IFC Films)

EDGE: Americans may not know that the title, "Moffie," is an anti-gay insult in Afrikaans. Given that South African audiences will recognize the title as a slur — and other audiences around the world might not have any idea what it means — had you given thought to finding some other title for the film?

Oliver Hermanus: I think I actually liked calling the film "Moffie." In the beginning I wasn't sure we should do that. I know that internationally, the word has no meaning, but what I did like about the idea of naming the film "Moffie" was that we could keep that title internationally because nobody would feel the need to change it. It's a word that's just a couple of syllables and a sound. I was proven right: It's playing as "Moffie" practically everywhere. That's always nice, when your film [title] doesn't get translated. One of my previous films was called "Skoonheid" — nobody really knows what "Skoonheid" means outside of South Africa. [The word means "Beauty" in Afrikaans. — ed] Internationally, it's known as "Beauty." It's always kind of strange when your child is re-named, and I kind of like the fact that "Moffie" is "Moffie" everywhere.

EDGE: It's interesting that the film brings in not just homophobic prejudice, but also ethnic prejudice in that there's bigotry toward the main character, Nicholas, because he's of English descent. Did you see that as being, to some extent, a substitution for racial bias in the story?

Oliver Hermanus: The complexity of apartheid is that its prejudice structures were nuanced and layered. Yes, there was the oppression of people that were not white, including my [mixed-race] people. We were all kind of on the sliding scale of value and human rights, Black people being very much at the bottom, but there is not being much difference between Black people and mixed-race people. Then you had Indian people slightly above, and Chinese people from China were kind of slightly below Chinese people who were born in South Africa. There was this weird myriad of differences. But one of these small finer details was the complexity of English-speaking white South Africans versus Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans, and that is a hangover from the Boer War. There were these two factions who fought each other, which we don't really explain in the film. The word that the Afrikaans boys use to describe the English-speaking boy is "soutpiel," which — I don't remember how we translated it, but ultimately what it means is "salty penis." And the reason why it's "salty penis" is because they're from England, so they've got one foot in England and one foot in South Africa, and their penis is in the Atlantic Ocean.


Kai Luke Brummer in 'Moffie'  (Source: Courtesy of IFC Films)

EDGE: Let me ask about the casting of Kai Luke Brummer — what were you looking for in terms of the character that he brought in to the audition?

Oliver Hermanus: The critical element of Nicholas was an innocence. There had to be an absolute openness and an absolute sense of vulnerability. It's a very complex energy to maintain for an actor, and Kai found that. I was impressed by how you can see in his performance how the character is hardening in certain places — his innocence being lost, but also his personality is becoming hardened. The film was shot out of sequence, but he did the scenes where he was meant to be the hardest at the very beginning of the shoot.

EDGE: Nicholas seems to be sorting out the issue of his own sexuality as the film progresses. Or does he know going into the army that he's gay? Is this something you and Kai Luke Brummer had a take on and played to?

Oliver Hermanus: We had plotted Nicholas' psychological journey quite particularly. We had decided that he was going into the army not knowing that he's gay, and that the moment of connection between him and Stassen is truly out of nowhere, and it really is something that's an electric shock to his system. He's suddenly seeing all these boys differently. It's all coming from a place of being repressed. And then, I wanted to show where that repression actually comes from, stepping into the character's memory [of a traumatic incident from his childhood]. We never actually frame the moment in this film as this character acknowledging the moment and stepping into the moment; I just take you there. But we get the sense that the character is unaware that he's gone there inside of his head. He hasn't actually connected his repression to his past.

EDGE: And it's a deeply traumatic moment. Whether he's conscious of that, or whether it's something subconscious, that seed of homophobia has been planted at an early age.

Oliver Hermanus: All gay men, or all queer people, have a moment where they're identified before they have self-identified. Somebody else has identified you in the negative, and the innocence of the moment is immediately layered with the shame of the moment, and so it's the moment of that seed being planted, and that's what you're seeing with this young boy. All he's taking in from this is, "Whatever I did, that seemingly innocent thing, I must not do again." He becomes militant about avoiding it, and I think that's an experience that speaks to the nature of shame, the nature of othering people, and ultimately that word itself. That scene is about that word — a word that's used between adults. One man calling another man's son a "moffie" is a step too far. There's gonna be a fistfight about it.

Kai Luke Brummer and Ryan de Villiers in 'Moffie'  (Source: Courtesy of IFC Films)

EDGE: It's bizarre that grown men would have an obsession with the question of who's gay or not — that's seventh grade, not a quality of maturity or leadership. But in the case of South African society, is that obsession something that emerges from a colonial mindset, a fierce need to maintain absolute control?

Oliver Hermanus: Definitely. There is a common idea of "whiteness" in this film, which is one that whiteness is purity, and whiteness is absolute masculinity — something that has absolute value. In the context of a bunch of people who are all white, how do they differentiate? How do they other each other when they can't other each other on a racial level? So what they do is, there's this measurement of masculinity versus "moffies" and women. It's a way of creating scale, and a way of creating value, and [establishing] divisions and barriers inside of a certain part of our complex society. I think in a military context, as in the wider world, using sexuality as a negative is a way of diminishing the soldiers' assumed prowess and assumed ability. A soldier being gay has never historically been two things that go together.

EDGE: There's an interesting character in the vicious sergeant that the conscripts have to contend with. But in places, the sergeant seems almost to be regretful or have some grudging respect for Nicholas. Did you want him to be a real villain, or was the idea more to show how South Africa's homophobia was scarring and traumatic not just for gays, but for all men?

Oliver Hermanus: I think that's the interesting thing about these kinds of societies. I tend to wonder what is the difference between the person who goes along and the person that is victimized? It takes this buy-in from everyone to create these environments. Why does that man, that sergeant, embody the system? Why does he subscribe? Is it because he has no choice in the matter, or is it because the alternative is too polarizing or scary, or he doesn't see a choice? It's this way that ideas and brainwashing and indoctrination kind of start to exist inside of people and self-manifest.

I think at the heart of that character is the kid who wants everyone to like him, and he gets into a position of power, and all of a sudden all of these things that have been dormant within him come to the surface, and he's just this absolute terror. But he wasn't bred that way; it lurks inside of him, and it's invited to come out. I find it very interesting that wars are fought by people who commit to them, but you always wonder if nobody actually goes door to door and tells them to do it, they just all suddenly come together and they all commit the acts collectively. Independent thought goes out the window.

Kai Luke Brummer in 'Moffie'  (Source: Courtesy of IFC Films)

EDGE: When Nicholas makes a connection with fellow conscript Dylan Stassen, played by Ryan de Villiers, you couldn't really communicate that in the usual way by having a sex scene. Did you have to sit down with the actors and figure out how they were going to communicate the depth and intensity of that attraction?

Oliver Hermanus: I think we always decided that Stassen was the more sexually experienced — that he kind of knew what he was doing, and that he was taking the risk with Nicholas, kind of sensing in Nicholas a potential and taking a risk. Speaking to Ryan about it, we kind of gave Dylan a lot more life experience and also positioned him as [the outlier]. Like I was saying before, all these boys are willing to conform, and then Dylan was the one character who refused to conform. Something we agreed on as actor and director was that Dylan believes two men can love each other, and he has no problem with that. The idea of having a fistfight with someone just goes against his grain, because that's not how he expresses himself. Knowing that being the defiant person in the system, only one thing was going to happen: The system was going to win, and it was going to come down on him even harder than on the others. That's the risk of asserting oneself in these conflicts.

EDGE: Of your four films, two have gay themes. Do you look forward to making further films about the gay experience, or would you prefer to approach your career un a more open-ended way?

Oliver Hermanus: The nature of cinema is changing. It's a bit like going clubbing — in the past you had gay clubs, and gay people just went to gay clubs because that's where they could be around other gay people., But now the clubbing is decentralized. You can have a gay table at a straight club. You're not as compartmentalized as you were before.

I think it's somewhat similar in cinema, where you can have queer aspects to your story. I don't think I think about it as making a gay film or not making a gay film; I go with a more complex idea of making a film about shame, and then making a film about loss, and then making a film about beauty, or mothers. That's how I operate. The one I'm making next is definitely about life; death affirming life. When there are elements of those stories that have queer themes as well, those are always welcome. But I wouldn't say that I think about it on this level of "gay film" or "straight film."

EDGE: According to reports, that next film you mention is called "Living," and the screenplay is by Kazuo Ishiguro — what else can you say about it?

Oliver Hermanus: It's either the biggest fool's errand of all time, or not. I'm remaking a Kurosawa film — I'm re-making "Ikiru," set in London in the 1930s, starring Bill Nighy as the main character, Williams, who realizes that he's going to die, and suddenly wonders if he's lived.

"Moffie" is playing now in select theaters, and is available on demand and VOC platforms.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.