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In 'Moffie,' A Gay Soldier Comes Of Age During Apartheid In South Africa


The film "Moffie" is set in 1981 in apartheid South Africa, where a young recruit must complete two years of mandatory military service, fighting against those who want to get rid of the country's segregated racist policies. Oliver Hermanus is the director of "Moffie," and he joins me now. Welcome to the program.

OLIVER HERMANUS: Hi. How are you?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am well. Can you tell us first about what moffie means and how the term is used?

HERMANUS: The term moffie is a derogatory word in Afrikaans. It's a weapon of shame used to criticize or humiliate men for a lack of masculinity. And it eventually sort of stretched itself into becoming a derogatory word to imply that you were gay. But in its sort of original function, its potency kind of related to heterosexual men, as well. So in the setting of our film, all these young boys who go to the army - being called a moffie is a thing you do not want to be called. But if, in fact, you are gay, you would sort of be - have double potency. And, obviously, being gay during apartheid was illegal. So being called a moffie had a lot of risk attached to it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, you grew up in South Africa and are openly gay, but you didn't grow up in the era which we see in the movie. What moved you to tell this story now?

HERMANUS: It was a very complex journey for me because I was born in '83, and this movie set in '81. And I am not a white South African. I'm a mixed race South African. So my childhood was still living a life under apartheid. My parents lived the majority of their lives oppressed by apartheid. And so as a film director, being asked to make my first apartheid-set film and for that film to be an investigation of the trauma of white men during apartheid, it was quite a tall ask for somebody like myself. And so that was the original hurdle for me - was going, why me? Why this story? And I guess, in the end, I realized that there was also this faction of men who experienced something that relates to being oppressed by a system that they weirdly should, in other senses, have sort of benefited from. And so our lead character is as much illegal in certain ways as other members of the society at the time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, what's extraordinary about this is that young men were sent off at 16. That is incredibly young.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And most of the military training is seen through the main character Nicholas's perspective, and it is brutal. Can you describe the kinds of techniques and practices that were used on actual men in those two years?

HERMANUS: So we really were quite ferocious about our research, and so many of the scenes that we show in the film of how they get stripped of their individuality and their sort of identity is very much what would happen. And it's a sort of standard kind of military thing to do. And so it would be about humiliation. It would be about beating out any kind of political attitudes, any kind of intellectualism, obviously sort of sexuality if that was the issue. But you were not allowed to be a free-thinking person. The other thing, I guess, to remember about the legalities of this conscription was that you were property of the state for these two years. If you were killed under their watch or died, there was no recourse for your family to pursue the government in any way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As someone who is mixed race, I want to ask you about how the racism is portrayed in this film. I mean, the only time the viewer sees Black people is when they're being brutalized. What led you to that choice?

HERMANUS: I was very determined to position the audience in the headspace of the racist white South Africa. If you were a young white person or white boy or white teenager, white man, your interaction with Black people was the kinds of interactions that we show in this film, where Black people were there for you to abuse or hurt or exploit or humiliate or harm. So it's an uncomfortable position to put an audience in, particularly in this time in history, but I think it was necessary, as a person who has experienced racism many different times in my life, to demonstrate that to a white audience that would see this film. This is what racism looks like.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Many of the young men trained and indoctrinated in the apartheid-era propaganda, are still alive and they're still around.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Are they part of the conversation in South Africa today around race?

HERMANUS: You know, they always say that South Africa is a country full of people where all the laws change, and apartheid went away, and we welcomed in a new president and a new country, but the people were still the same people who were there the day before South Africa, you know, became a democratic state. And I think that making a film about the trauma of these men who are still alive and well was always a challenge because I can never say for certainty that that generation of men have been, in a way, reformed or that the ideas that are kind of pressed into their heads during their conscription are not still lingering. That's the question that the film poses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Since this is about white people, what do you think white people in South Africa or elsewhere - even here, where the legacy of segregation and racism that is still alive and well exists - what do you think they would get out of a film like this?

HERMANUS: It's a difficult film for white South Africans. You know, it's a confronting film. It's a film that is saying to these men who went to the army, although it was technically against their will, that some of the things you did or perhaps a lot of the things you did were criminal and acts of human rights atrocity. So it's a hard one. You know, we're a country where, on some level, we're trying to build new bonds and connect as a society in a way that doesn't hold on to the past. But in some senses, we also have to acknowledge the past. And I think for Black South Africans, what a film like "Moffie" does is kind of just give them a little bit of insight into what things might have looked like on the other side and realizing that perhaps there was more dimension to that. It's not like every single white South African man who went to this army was an absolute racist.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's interesting what you're saying, that, you know, whether you're white or whether you're Black, you're going to perhaps draw different lessons from this, and that is the place of art, to contribute to that. I wonder where you see the resonance to what is happening and has happened here.

HERMANUS: When we premiered "Moffie" in 2019 at the Venice Film Festival, a few days before our premiere, a woman had been murdered in South Africa in Capetown. She had gone to the post office and very innocently had asked the man behind the desk. And he told her to come back a couple of hours later for the parcel that she was expecting, and he ended up killing her, actually, on the property of that post office. It was this horrific sort of gender-based act of violence that sent a shockwave through the country. And it had that kind of resonance where there was a moment of pause about the nature of being a woman in South Africa of any real race but particularly if you were a Black woman. And that - there was the biggest march against gender-based violence in South Africa on the very same day that our film premiered in Venice.

And when George Floyd was murdered, it felt the same to me. It felt that a crime had been committed in America which had just created this extreme moment of pause where the question right now that Americans are having to ask themselves, I guess, across all of different cultures and ethnicities and races - is going, what is it that unites us? How is it that we connect with one another in a way that is without prejudice or without a sense of inherency that dictates that we treat each other as less or more?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Oliver Hermanus is the director of "Moffie." It is now in select theaters and available on video on demand and, of course, digitally. Thank you so much for joining us.

HERMANUS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIDA SHAHABI'S "ALL IN CIRCLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.