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'Moffie' Director Oliver Hermanus on the Toxic Masculinity of Apartheid

Courtesy of IFC Films; Courtesy of Daniel Rutland Manners/IFC
The South African filmmaker, who is mixed race, takes a scathing look at institutional racism and homophobia in his Afrikaans-language drama, which bows in the U.S. today.

For his first film on Apartheid, South African director Oliver Hermanus did not expect to focus on the trauma of white men.

Hermanus, who was born in Cape Town and now lives in London, is mixed race, the group labeled "colored" under the racist regime that ruled South Africa until the early 1990s. But Moffie, his first film set in the apartheid era, is told from the white point of view.

The film is set in the early 1980s. We follow Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), a shy, closeted gay recruit drafted, like all white men over 16 in South Africa at the time, to do a mandatory two years of military service. He'll endure brutal basic training and systematic brainwashing, intended to infect the recruits with the regime's brand of paranoid nationalism, racism, and homophobia.

The film's title, Moffie, is a homophobic slur in Afrikaans, the language of white South Africa. The word is used as a weapon, spat out rapid-fire to beat down any soldier suspected of being insufficiently masculine. In one harrowing scene, a sadistic drill sergeant gets the recruits to chant the word over and over —"Mo-ffies!, Mo-ffies! Mo-ffies!!"—at two men after they have apparently been caught having sex.

Hermanus, whose previous films have included the deeply personal, and critically-acclaimed, Shirley Adams (2009), Beauty (2011), and The Endless River (2015), said he was initially uncertain when Moffie producers Eric Abraham and Jack Sidey approached him with the idea of adapting André Carl van der Merwe's autobiographical novel of the same name. "It was only after I got my head around it that I realized this is really a story about shame and indoctrination," he recalls.

Moffie premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2019 and opened in South Africa two weeks before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered cinemas there. IFC is bowing Moffie in select theaters and online in the U.S. today, Friday, April 9. Producer Sidey is nominated for a 2021 BAFTA award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer.

Hermanus, who is now working on an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, written by Noble Prize-winning novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (The Remains of the Day), spoke to The Hollywood Reporter's European Bureau Chief Scott Roxborough via zoom from his home in London.

What was it about the novel Moffie, about this story, that spoke to you?

Oliver Hermanus: Actually, initially I wasn't sure about this project. I wasn't sure if this movie would asking to me to care about the trauma of white men during apartheid, which is not the kind of narrative you expect to get from South Africa, since, in fact, non-white South Africans were obviously experiencing the vast majority of trauma. It was only when I did get my head around it that I realized this is really a story about shame and indoctrination. I saw this was an opportunity for me to really give a broader dimension to the reality of apartheid, which is that apartheid affected all of us. It affected the vast majority of South Africans, black South Africans, in a far more severe way. But there was a faction of white South Africans, particularly gay whites, who in very similar ways to non-white in Africa were in some ways made legitimately illegal. And they suffered similar consequences to other dissidents.

What did you find most challenging about taking on this white point of view?

Because I'm not a white Afrikaans myself, this was not the film I thought I'd be making about apartheid. As a South African filmmaker, you know eventually in your filmmaking career you will at some point make a movie about the apartheid era. There are the obvious films you consider making, about the resistance icons, or the more intimate stories about what apartheid did to dehumanize people. Being approached to make a film of this nature was interesting to me because I didn't think my personal film about apartheid would have white men as its subject. The initial challenge in adapting the book [with co-screenwriter Jack Sidey] was to find a way to make this story personal for me.

All my movies have a very personal touch. This was my first film based on pre-existing material. But when I found the end, was this is movie is about shame. It's about how men are made, about how these teenage boys are initiated into a machine of rage, which the general kind of experience of apartheid for most Afrikaans. When I realized that, I saw there was a lot inside this story that I could identify with, a lot about this character's journey that I could personalize. It just flourished from that point on.

Do you see a direct connection between these different aspects of the toxic nature of the South African regime, between institutionalized racism, institutionalized homophobia, and the country's toxic nationalism?

South Africa was a country driven by toxic masculinity at the helm of every social and political sphere of the country. It was the nature of how that machine operated. It's still the nature of how many machines operate in the world today, of how we initiate boys into manhood and what we are saying to boys about what it means to be a man. I think that's very much at the center of our film because in the world today we are faced with these questions about identity, masculinity, toxic masculinity, and gender-based violence. About how men treat other men, how they treat women, and how men treat themselves. I think this has become a very pertinent question, sort of a globalized conversation.

How did your young Afrikaans cast respond to the story? Did they recognize the South Africa in the film, which must be radically different than the country they grew up in, post-apartheid?

Well, our past is not really past. It isn't that far removed. The actors could draw from their fathers' experiences. Although these young actors, who were born free, after apartheid, the reality is that they still understand the hangups of races in Africa. The context of our film isn't too far removed from what they understand about our tangible racial politics.

You released the film in South Africa shortly before lockdown there. What was the response of the local audience?

The majority of South Africans are black South Africans. So it was a challenge to ask them to understand and consider the trauma of white men being conscripted to the army. But I was very impressed and very encouraged by the fact that the South African audience saw value in this film. I think we're a country where we appreciate how the stories from our past can help us navigate our present and our future. I think that's helped contribute to the healing process.

But it must have been quite an ask to get black audiences to empathize with white Afrikaans, the people most would see as the perpetrators, not the victims, of apartheid.

Absolutely. I mean, that's exactly what the film is. It's a very dangerous thing to do. And I can totally understand people who find that difficult or uncomfortable to do. But I think the majority of people actually saw the value of doing that. Maybe it's because we made the film at the right time. If we had made this 10 years ago, it could have been too soon.

You make quite major tonal shifts in the film, from the extreme brutality of basic training and the battle scenes to moments of touching tenderness. Are those scenes drawn from the novel or how much did you add to the story of the book?

We really departed from the book quite extremely. The book was a launchpad for the subject of the film. The narrative and the style of the film were completely different. The co-writer Jack Sidey and I were very fortunate to be able to research and add other people's stories. The film is really the product of that. For example, the scene of the drill sergeant telling a recruit to go fetch a leaf from a tree [he then beats the soldier with the branch he brings back] was something we just discovered through research from so many people who had experienced exactly that. We were able to write a script where we had a lot of freedom to go in the direction that made sense to us. The writer of the book was kind enough to give us that liberty.

How did you reach out to former conscripts?

It's was an interesting bit of research. These men have created so many forums and groups on Facebook to connect and reconnect with these people they knew when they were 18. We were able to kind of spy on these groups and then introduce ourselves and get them to tell us their stories. The research process for this film was very much like oral history. We were able to access those first-hand accounts. The book is also very much a first-hand account and we were able to access other first-hand accounts.

When you make a movie about the military or war, this is a world full of rules. You know that the audience watching can tear it apart in a second if you don't get the details right. I was militant in my research, militant in my instructions to the actors about every single thing that they would or would not do: how they make their beds, how they wear their berets, how they dress, how they smoke cigarettes, the language they use. Absolutely everything. It was crucial to get those details right.

What surprised you most in your research?

The nature of apartheid was separation. You never really knew the experiences of the other side. For me to launch into this research was to see this other dimension, to see how the vast majority of these white men—who I had never questioned whether they accepted the political status quo—and realizing that actually, a large majority of them did not want to do this. They had a horrible experience [in the military] and regretted it and still have trauma about it. I didn't know that. Going into this, I was a little bit unprepared for the depth of my empathy for this generation of men.

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