Army of One

Set in 1981, Moffie is a highly accomplished South African drama, a coming-of-age story tinged with brutality and beauty. The military setting will naturally draw comparisons to Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, in particular the horrifying basic training sequences. While those may be large boots to fill, Oliver Hermanus’ film stands tall, with powerful performances from a local cast largely unfamiliar to those outside South Africa.

Adapted from an autobiographical 2006 novel by André Carl van der Merwe, the story follows a new conscript, the 18-year-old Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer), set for two years compulsory military service. At a time when the Apartheid-torn country was embroiled in the South African Border War, fighting Angolan forces in an effort to repel Communism, new recrutits are trained and turned into fighting machines by the sadistic Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser).

In this toxic environment, being openly gay is about the biggest crime there is. The title is the Afrikaans equivalent of the anti-gay slur ‘faggot’ and an early scene shows what happens to those who get caught with other men. Nicholas too has gay feelings, and an attraction to fellow soldier-in-training Stassen (Ryan de Villiers), but he’s also good at hiding in plain sight – a necessary means of survival.

The early training scenes are typically gut-wrenching, as the men are marched to the point of exhaustion, beaten and mentally tortured by Brand. But there are moments of release too – a sunny volleyball game, a shared cigarette, some R&R in a disco dancing to Yazoo’s ‘Don’t Go’. As the story unfolds, there is real danger too – a night-time attack at the border is ripe with tension and the scars it leaves on Nicholas are all too plain to see.

Written by Hermanus and Jack Sidey, Moffie motors along, though always has time for moments of reflection. In particular, a single flashback – at the halfway point – to Nicholas’ childhood, a scarring incident in the changing rooms at a public pool. Drawing as much from Claire Denis’ Beau Travail as Kubrick’s aforementioned Vietnam-era classic, Moffie leaves a lasting, lingering impression.

Moffie is available to stream on Curzon Home Cinema from 24 April. For more details, visit here.

James Mottram