From an outside perspective, South African cinema tends to announce itself through occasional breakout films rather than consistently visible directorial careers. Back in the 1980s, The Gods Must Be Crazy was a global hit that didn’t do much to raise the profile of its director, Jamie Uys. Fourteen years ago, gritty township fable Tsotsi won the country one of its first Oscars, only to send director Gavin Hood directly into a proficient but culturally anonymous Hollywood career.
In Oliver Hermanus, however, the country has produced its most significant auteur in several generations. The 36-year-old Capetonian studied at the London Film School, but returned home for his art. His 2009 graduation film Shirley Adams, a tough-minded mother-son portrait set on the Cape Flats, set the tone for a career marked by global critical acclaim. He stepped up to Cannes with his follow-up, Beauty, a startling study of a closeted Afrikaner that made it to UK cinemas; his third film, The Endless River, did not.
Moffie, Hermanus’s poetic yet visceral fourth feature, feels like the one that will cement him in the contemporary arthouse canon. A war film that returns to the anxious queer terrain of Beauty, it has been collecting awards and plaudits – including three British Independent Film Award nominations – since premiering at Venice last autumn. It’s his most pristinely accomplished film yet, though, in its conception at least, not his most personal: it adapts André Carl van der Merwe’s semi-autobiographical 2006 novel, based on his experiences as a gay teenage conscript sent to fight in the South African Border War in the early 1980s.
A gay director born after the events depicted in the film, Hermanus was intrigued by the possibilities of exploring a regimented realm denied to men of colour in the apartheid era, while finding common ground in his closeted white protagonist’s suffering under a vicious Afrikaner patriarchy. “The subject matter did bother me at first,” he says from his home outside Cape Town, where he’s self-isolating under coronavirus lockdown. “It was my mum who actually said to me, ‘Why make another film about white men in apartheid South Africa?’
“But the challenge is to find the centre of it that resonates with you completely. And for me, that became not just about the character’s sexuality, but about the shame factor: the fact that under this regime, boys were sort of shamed into becoming a certain kind of man. Because we keep asking the question, especially in South Africa: where does our toxic masculinity come from? When I looked at it that way, when I sort of saw this as an exploration of our past that informs our present, I was more comfortable with it.”
Van der Merwe’s novel had a more defined romantic throughline; though Hermanus’s film outlines an attraction between protagonist Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) and a fellow misfit recruit, he deliberately downplayed the love story. “A key rule of mine from the very beginning was that there was going to be no kind of conventional love scene: it wasn’t going to be a relationship drama,” he says. “It was going to be more about our connection to this problematic era, and the generation of men who lived through that.”
In doing so, Hermanus was prepared to be confrontational – taking the book’s title, a common Afrikaans anti-gay slur, as his cue on that front. “I know it’s a very triggering film – it had to be,” he admits. “We’ve had an overwhelming range of reactions to the film in South Africa: some from gay men who had been to the army and felt identified and recognised, some from men who don’t necessarily acknowledge the fact that they are still traumatised. One member of the press had a panic attack at a screening. These are common experiences but they haven’t been widely addressed in South African culture.”
Though the film is set in the whites-only domain of the army, Hermanus doesn’t skimp on depicting anti-black violence: “It was a dangerous choice, I know, to have all of the black characters be physical objects, victimised on the sidelines. But that’s how it was: there’s a white gaze there, and we needed to see that.” He cites inspiration from the 2010 Abdellatif Kechiche historical drama Black Venus – which depicted the white objectification and abuse of black South African performer Saartjie Baartman, to divisive effect.
Hermanus is prepared for pushback on the point of view he’s taken, but doesn’t see South African cinema evolving via kid-glove treatment of its own ugly history. “The challenge in the South African film landscape right now is that it still seems to exist very much within racial boundaries: white money making nostalgia pieces for white people that are devoid of black people, and then you’ve got black film-makers making romantic comedies and genre films about black lives,” he says. “The films I make don’t really exist in that market. And then I didn’t want to make a safe film like Long Walk to Freedom, where you kind of get everyone’s perspective on everything.
“So I decided we were going to put the world in the headspace of white South Africa in the 80s, to show what that looked like from the inside,” he concludes. Moffie delivers vividly and discomfitingly on that promise: Hermanus continues to make films that feel as bracing and urgent to locals as to international onlookers.