How to keep your heart (when all about you are losing theirs)



FOR the love of a broken boy: Kai Brummer is Nicholas van der Swart in Oliver Hermanus’s ‘Moffie’. Photograph courtesy IMDb.

HOWEVER MUCH OF the horror and cruelty you may think you will experience in Oliver Hermanus’s Moffie, there will be more. This searingly important testimony to the obscenity of South African apartheid is riddled with the kind of truisms that will make you wish to look away, but it is so beautifully made and carefully constructed that you will find yourself unable to.

This story of Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) and his mandatory experience with the South African Defence Force, in the 1980s, because he is male and white, is the story of many South African men, some of whom lived to tell the tale. It resonates with the darkest moments in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and makes you think of what a young Steven Cohen or Johannes Kerkorrel faced in those years coloured by grim and sham bureaucracies held sacred by buffoons. You look at the youth represented by Hermanus here and you understand why young testosterone-fuelled men are grist for the mill of a war or an army of this nature.

Folllowing the horrifying narrative of the eponymous novel, written by Carl-André van der Merwe, fairly closely, the work details the classic path of the hero. But it is threaded through with classic music and popular tunes of the 1980s, including Sixto Rodriquez’s Sugar Man with its verboten drug references, to raise the goosebumps on your skin and in your soul. Indeed, the whole soundscape of this work is so exceptionally fine that it deserves a credit of its own.

Nick’s response to his own sexuality is handled with deftness. This is not a crude extrapolation of gay boy finding himself: You know what the film is about because of its title. And like Mark Mathabane’s direct and shocking coming-of-age story, Kaffir Boy, published in 1986, it’s a tale of bullying and brokennees in the time of Angola and Hermanus pulls no punches. Crusted with tiny narrative gems, such as one slice of the film which see racist white youth doing what they think they can at a train stop, the film understands how to carry complicated threads without overstatement.

An obvious comparison between Moffie and Christiaan Olwagen’s Kanarie of 2018, feels necessary: they tell similar tales. In Moffie, however, there is no metaphor. There is no camp and no sparkly eye-shadow. There are no idioms and parables here about what it means to deal with a sexuality that lies in direct contradiction to the aggressive heteronorms being forced upon you. It’s unrelenting and it leaves you with bleeding suppurating gashes in your heart.

This is an important film for its time. It offers a very loud voice of the young cossetted white men thirty years ago who, unformed and pimply, really had no options. And in doing so, it offers a gloss on the blanket oversimplified judgements that get tossed hither and yon in this society, poking holes in one’s outward behaviour.

  • Moffie is directed by Oliver Hermanus based on the eponymous 2006 novel by André-Carl van der Merwe. With a screenplay by Oliver Hermanus and Jack Sidey, it features a cast headed by Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Wynand Ferreira, Hendrik Nieuwoudt, Hilton Pelser, Shaun Chad Smit, Rikus Terblanche, Stefan Vermaak and Matthew Vey. Produced by Eric Abraham and Jack Sidey, and with creative input by Braam du Toit (music), Jamie Ramsay (cinematography), Alain Dessauvage (editing), Jaci Cheiman (casting) and Reza Levy (costumes), it releases in South Africa on 13 March 2020.

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