Prejudice Can't Trump Attraction in Oliver Hermanus' Gay Military Drama 'Moffie'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday June 13, 2021

The Oliver Hermanus "Moffie" film has drawn glowing plaudits from the LGBTQ press and mainstream media alike, with Hermanus' direction being singled out for praise. Almost instantly, the film has gained the status of a new LGBTQ cinema classic; more than that, it's been recognized as a masterful cinematic achievement for all audiences.

Set in 1980s South Africa during Apartheid — an era marked both by deep racism and scarring homophobia — "Moffie" follows the gradual sexual awakening of 16-year-old Nicholas, who has been drafted into the South African army — as are all young men at that age — to defend the country in its border skirmishes with Angola.

Nicholas begins to realize that he's attracted to other men when he meets fellow conscript Dylan Stassen (Ryan de Villiers). The others in basic training — as well as the sadistic Sgt. Brand (Hilton Pelser) — are just waiting to rain down abuse on anyone suspected of being a "moffie," a pejorative South African slang word for a gay man. Will Nicholas — and his growing attraction to Stassen — flourish despite South Africa's anti-gay culture? Or will the young man's heart and spirit wither?

Hermanus co-wrote the script, adapting the 2006 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by André Carl van der Merwe.

"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.," Hermanus told EDGE in a recent interview. "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."

However, Hermanus went on to add: "The more I thought about it, I decided that what was wrong about it might be what was right about it."

Something else that's right for the film is its title, which no one outside of South Africa would be likely to understand. But that distinctive title served him well; Hermanus explained in the interview that "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."

Hermanus is of mixed heritage, and he explained to EDGE what it was like to grow up in South Africa when institutional racism wasn't just deeply ingrained — it was part of the law itself.

"We were all kind of on the sliding scale of value and human rights, Black people being very much at the bottom, but there not being much difference between Black people and mixed-race people," Hermanus said. "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," the acclaimed director went on to say. "The word that the Afrikaans boys use to describe the English-speaking boy" — Nicholas — "is 'soutpiel,' which — I don't remember how we translated it, but ultimately what it means is 'salty penis.' "

That imaginative insult has historical cultural roots. To find out where it comes from and what It means — and to read Hermanus' account of casting star Kai Luke Brummer as Nicholas, his thoughts on exploring a coming-of-age romance where sex would be dangerous if it were even possible, and his reflections on how LGBTQ themes define half his oeuvre so far, read his full interview with EDGE.

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.