The main character of Oliver Hermanus’ shattering “Moffie,” set in 1981 South Africa, is a handsome, white 18-year-old. In the country’s system of apartheid, he is a member of the ruling class, but he’s no insider.
Shy, timid and closeted, Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) is conscripted into the army as part of regulated military service for white males over 16. There, the film’s title — an Afrikaans’ anti-gay slur — isn’t directed at him but it’s hurled all around — an ever-present threat of ostracism and abuse. In brutal basic training, it’s as if bullets are already flying perilously close to Nicholas.
But “Moffie,” which opens in theaters and on-demand Friday, is more than a coming-of-age story about a young gay man in an unprogressive society. In following Nicholas into basic training, the film wades into the dark heart of apartheid and a cauldron of destructive masculinity. There, young men are indoctrinated, through the barks of drill sergeants, to an ideology of fear, oppression and nationalism endemic to 1980s South Africa but also to most any other place or era. Nicholas has been conscripted into an army of intolerance, one that sees him as an enemy.
From the start, the imagery by Hermanus and cinematographer Jamie D. Ramsay is grittily intimate, tactile and vivid. The score by Braam du Toit sets an ominous tone. The camera trails overhead the train that will take Nicholas to the barracks as it snakes slowly over the grasslands. We only briefly glimpse his life beforehand; his father hands him a girlie magazine for “ammunition.” On the train, a soon-to-be-friend (Stassen, played by Ryan de Villiersoffers) offers him a drink. When Nicholas declines, Stassen replies, “Are you sure? Do you know where we’re going?”