Gay Israeli filmmaker Eytan Fox’s 2002 movie “Yossi & Jagger,” as well as its 2012 sequel “Yossi,” was a groundbreaking look at gays and the military.
Queer filmmaker Oliver Hermanus takes the subject matter to the next level with his devastating “Moffie” (IFC Films).
In 1981 South Africa, a place where “the white minority govern the country through legislated racial separation — Apartheid,” 16-year-old Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) is about to begin his two-year compulsory conscription in the South African military. It’s a precarious time as operations have begun on the border with Soviet-backed Angola where the spread of communism is a threat.
It doesn’t take long for “Moffie” to set its bleak and brutal tone. The train ride to the army base, packed to the gills with young recruits, is a nauseating experience. This holds true for the activities on the train, as well as off the train, where a Black man is assaulted at a train station. The only good thing that occurs on the ride is when Nicholas meets Michael (Matthew Vey), who remains his friend throughout their time in the service.
From the moment they arrive at the base, as “property of the South African government, the young soldiers are subjected to degradation, physical abuse and worse. The explicit homophobia, much of which comes from the relentless and ruthless Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser), is soul-crushing. Being gay (“moffie” is another word for faggot), as well as expressing communist ideology or sympathizing with the Black people, is considered undermining and won’t be tolerated. Nicholas becomes a target of barracks bullies, led by Snyman (Wynand Ferreira), because he speaks English.
Somehow, Nicholas mostly manages to avoid Brand’s unwanted attention, but the same is not true for others, including Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), who is regularly tortured by the demonic sergeant. When Baxer (Cody Mountain) and Hilton (Luke Tyler) are caught together in a bathroom stall, they are beaten with a pillowcase filled with gun parts and sent to Ward 22, the psych ward.
After a day digging trenches, a night spent sleeping outdoors in the rain leads to a sexual encounter between Nicholas and Stassen. The impact of the act has a powerful effect on Nicholas. He has strong feelings for Stassen, but he knows that he must never exhibit them. Additionally, a negative experience from his past, presented in a difficult flashback, pushes him further into the closet. Nevertheless, at this point “Moffie” makes good use of the sexual tension, including a slo-mo volleyball game to rival the one from “Top Gun.”
While there is no immediate happy ending in sight, Nicholas survives his time in the military. However, the carnage (including a long and intense night patrol sequence that goes on too long) and the inhumaneness of the experience forever change him. An emotional reunion with Stassen is guaranteed to bring on the waterworks.
“Moffie” is a non-traditional horror movie in which the monsters are human. If you’re able to tolerate the depiction of emotional and physical cruelty, then you have a chance to watch an exceptional film achievement. In English and Afrikaner with subtitles.
Screen Savor is a weekly column from SFGN’s film critic Gregg Shapiro. Shapiro is an entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in regional LGBT and mainstream media outlets. Shapiro is the author of seven books including the 2019 chapbooks, Sunshine State and More Poems About Buildings and Food. Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.