A viciously homophobic South African military training camp in 1981 is no place to be considering and exploring your sexuality like any teen might – but that’s exactly where 18-year-old Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) finds himself for the majority of ‘Moffie’ (the title is an Afrikaans slur against gay people). Nicholas arrives in this dusty hellhole of thrown-together barracks and scratched-out parade grounds armed with little more than a rucksack and a rumpled porn mag given to him by his nervous dad. From there, writer-director Oliver Hermanus (‘Beauty’, ‘Shirley Adams’) gives us an atmospheric and extremely tense war film that features little actual war – although there’s plenty of threat and conflict to go around.
These young men spend each day training under the sweltering sun, preparing themselves for action on their country’s border with Angola. The training sergeant (Hilton Pelser) is a vicious brute, a caricature of nastiness, and complicit in a wider culture of terror. A warped sense of power colours everything, whether seen in a horrifying act of racism at a train station or the constant threat that any unmasculine behaviour will lead to violence or worse. There’s another factor at play: Nicholas is of English descent, while the majority of his fellow recruits are Afrikaans, and that carries with it a batch of specific prejudices and grudges.
Among it all, Nicholas becomes close to another trainee, Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), with whom he spends a freezing night in a ditch during a training exercise. Hermanus sensitively sketches the physicality of all these young soldiers sweating in the African heat – necessarily hard on the outside, but barely formed and still kids on the inside. It’s a poetic, lightly experimental spin on a culture entirely devoid of empathy and nuance. You expect an explosion, a showdown, but Hermanus’s approach is more careful and circumspect than that. He gives us a simmering pot of tensions and attractions, dotted with wider, half-glimpsed political ideas and social realities. But he preserves something special: the unknowability of half-formed, emerging teenage desire.
‘Moffie’ is available on Curzon Home Cinema from Fri, Apr 24.