Two years after the release of his debut feature in his native South Africa, director Oliver Hermanus was invited to show his second film, Skoonheid (Beauty), in competition at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the first Afrikaans language film to be selected.
The movie chronicles the anguish and self-hatred of François van Heerden, a middle-aged, married Afrikaaner whose struggle to accept his sexuality pushes him to the edge when he becomes obsessed with Christian, a handsome lawyer and the son of a friend.
Although Skoonheid earned top local film awards for both Hermanus and the film’s lead actor, the film sparked controversy and stirred debate in South Africa. Representations of the LGBTQ+ community by the country’s film industry have been few and far between. So, unsurprisingly, the film had great resonance for many gay viewers whose personal experiences were echoed, even amplified, by the film’s themes.
At the time, Hermanus felt ill-equipped to deal with the varied and intense reactions from audience members who had long felt that the depiction of gay lives had been suppressed and silenced in South African cinema.
“It’s very overwhelming when you make a piece of work and you’re interfacing with the audience in the way where they are seeking your personal connection because you’ve hit a nerve. It’s a lot of responsibility,” Hermanus says, speaking via Zoom from London. “I was young —26 or 27 — when I made that film, so I didn’t know what to do with these massive reactions that people were having to that particular film.” The director recalls, for example, being told that by someone: ‘I was thinking I was killing myself. I saw your film and it changed my choice.’ “That’s a lot to take on as a filmmaker,” he confesses.
Since then, Hermanus has matured and learned how to lighten the burden that comes with making movies that pack an emotional punch with South African audiences. The director knew that his latest film, Moffie, would “have that effect: different people would have different reactions to the film, whether positive or negative.” This time he had buffers in place. “I was a bit more protected in a sense,” he says. “I was more incubated by people around me and I wasn’t interfacing as much with a South African audience.”
In Moffie, Nicholas van der Swart, a recent high school graduate, who — like all White young men over the age of 16 in Apartheid South Africa — must report for two years of compulsory military service in the South African Defense Force (SADF). It is the early 1980s and South Africa is embroiled in an armed conflict against Cuban and Russian-backed Communist insurgents on the border of South West Africa (now Namibia). To the Apartheid regime, only the mounting internal opposition to apartheid by the African National Congress (ANC) posed a greater threat of destabilisation than the South African Border War. As a result, White conscripts were indoctrinated by the military apparatus with a hatred for the Black population in general.
While in training, Nicholas notices Stassen, another conscript in his platoon. The attraction is mutual and the chemistry between the two young men leads to a physical encounter under the cover of darkness in a trench.
Nicholas is besieged by latent dangers. Soon he will be deployed to the border to fight. Now, he too must hide his sexuality at all costs. To be labelled a “moffie” —a slur for a gay man in Afrikaans that is deployed as a weapon of shame and used to denigrate men for an apparent lack of masculinity — would be socially humiliating. But to be caught with another man would be far worse. Under Apartheid, homosexuality was a crime, punishable by imprisonment. In the SADF, conscripts suspected of being homosexual were sent to Ward 22.
“We wanted to take the audience to Ward 22,” Hermanus says. “But knew that we couldn’t spend a lot of time there. When we uncovered more and more about it, it was really fascinating.” Hermanus recounts taking calls from the public who had seen the film on a drive time radio show in South Africa. One caller stands out in his memory: “It was a woman and she explained that she had gone into Ward 22 as a man and that she had had gender reassignment surgery committed without her permission. [This was] part of the insanity of the things that used to go on.”
Hermanus also learned of a Ward 22 doctor who “had free rein in a Frankenstein kind of way” to execute “conversion therapies, gender reassignment surgeries and electric therapies. This place ruined and changed the lives of people in ways that they could never undo. A true crime story at one level, but it’s also this sort of horror story. I was deeply fascinated by it.”
Hermanus and his producers researched the location of Ward 22 in order to reconstruct it from a visual point of view when they began shooting the film. The ward was in fact a single very large room. “If you were a drug addict, if you were schizophrenic or had certain mental health issues, they would put you all together. So, you can imagine that you are a rational, healthy young gay man [with] nothing wrong with you and you’re just left in a room with people who had serious mental conditions. And there’s this doctor who gets to play around with you if he wants to and there’s no-one to stop him.”
The film is based on a memoir of the same name by André Carl van der Merwe. When the film’s producers approached the director about adapting the book for the screen, Hermanus met with van der Merwe to get a sense of “the essence of the story” from his perspective. “I think my interest and his interest are slightly different,” Hermanus notes. “He experienced this. He went through this. His take from this was the diminishing of his sexuality and the use of the word “moffie” to closet him. I wanted to maintain that, but I actually wanted to change it into a story of sexual liberation in the very slightest sense.”
Understanding that Hermanus wanted to explore the story further, van der Merwe granted the director the freedom to shift the book’s primary focus from the main character and the love interest to “the complexity of the other characters” and to rather tell the story through the non-romantic relationships and collective experience of a group of men.
Casting Moffie was the next challenge. Given that Hermanus and his producers had previously made three films in South Africa, when they released a public call that they were looking for a young star and for actors of a certain demographic, his team was inundated. “We saw thousands and thousands of young kids,” Hermanus recalls. “We had castings in Johannesburg and in Cape Town. We sat in a hotel room for days and days and days. I did a lot of press just to get people to come in. We found two of our central actors that way: two high school students who just walked into the room with their mothers and chatted with me for 10 to 15 minutes. We had an instinct about them and put them in the film and they were simply extraordinary. They just kind of did it. They lived it.”
The final cast was a blend of experienced actors and novices. Kai Luke Brummer who plays the lead, Nicholas, had previous stage experience. “So, you had the trained actors being intimidated by these two young 17-year-olds who seemed to have a way of [acting] that was clearly extraordinary and organic and real — but completely unconscious.” As a result, the trained actors felt obligated to work in a less conscious, more sentient manner. “So, it fed into it. There was a chemistry to this that really worked.”
Moffie makes use of an eclectic selection of musical styles by interweaving Braam du Toit’s score with pumping disco tracks, soaring operatic arias and contemplative classical pieces. “I always like the music in films to be unexpected,” Hermanus says. “Not unexpected for superficial necessities — but in that the juxtaposition of the music somehow deepens the emotional resonance of the film or the story.” While in places some music choices are meant to serve as ironic markers in Moffie, they are also “a homage to cinema as an idea, as a concept and the relationship of music to film.”
Some music selections had been used in other films and some are pieces of music that people know very well. Hermanus says he actively appropriated “those pieces of music in this context to tonally change not only the music itself, but also to create a tone in my film.” Hermanus says he has come to realise that when you use “a piece of music that people have an emotional relationship with” in a film, it inevitably alters their response to that music. “It’s another layer to a cocktail” where the director is the mixologist, “messing not just with what they are experiencing in your film,” but also “messing with what they think and feel when they usually hear this piece of music.”
After a successful film festival circuit run, Moffie premiered to widely positive reviews. Given the film’s critical success, Hermanus believes the demographic of Moffie has broadened beyond a subset of gay White men to include an entire “generation of men who felt that they were now allowed to freely discuss” their conscription by the SADF, and to voice feelings that included: “This was weird. This was wrong. They didn’t like it. They didn’t want to go to the border. They didn’t want to buy into this system.” The forum of discussion that opened up in the wake of the release of Moffie was a relief in a way, as it gave many men “the opportunity to express something that they might not have felt they were allowed to express before,” namely, that the time they spent as conscripts in the army was traumatising.
The film also addresses idiosyncratic perplexities that were embedded in the Apartheid power structure that may not be apparent to international audiences. Nicholas, who is English speaking, is abused and exploited by his fellow Afrikaans recruits and by the Afrikaans military leadership. Hermanus concedes that such cultural and language hierarchies among white South Africans are very difficult for the outside world to grasp.
“It’s a bit like Brazil,” he says. “Unless you understand Brazil’s racial and political history you don’t really get the nuances of Brazil. South Africa is very similar. We have such a complexity to our racial history that the world has taken as Black people being oppressed by White people. But really, there are the complexities of the English-speaking Whites and the Afrikaans-speaking Whites, Coloured people [of mixed racial descent] in South Africa and their heritage of being oppressed under Apartheid and the inherency of Coloured people’s racism toward Black people because they were positioned to see Black people as less. All of that textual detail is just the reality of a country that from the outside was labelled as a system of racism but from the inside was this massive structure of value and self-worth and potential. I find it so interesting that as South Africans, probably, so many of us still live with a kind of value crisis. We lack a certain value because we were all bred into a country where value was non-existent.”
Hermanus was born in Cape Town in 1983. By the time he attended high school, Nelson Mandela was President of a post-Apartheid rainbow nation. His attitude and approach to life, Hermanus concedes, is informed by the fact that he has lived “an entirely different life” to that which his parents lived through during Apartheid. “So, it’s a generational thing. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have experienced what these guys experienced and then to go on with your life as if it never happened.”
Although he is subject to frequent racism, he also acknowledges benefits that have accrued to him in a post-Apartheid country. “I experience racism all of the time in South Africa,” says Hermanus, who is a mixed race South African. “I experience racism all over the world.” Yet, he feels he is better equipped to manage that prejudice, to understand it and deflect it better than, say, his parents — because he has “a greater sense of value and of self-value.” As a consequence, how he navigates the world and how the world affects him is different. He points out that the character of François in Skoonheid hates himself and hates what was inside of him because of the past. Much of this is echoed in the characters of Moffie. “I see that difference,” he notes. “I see what I have as a filmmaker and as a South African, who gets to live my life. I see how this timing of my life in this larger South African narrative is ultimately my privilege. I have the privilege of freedom — not just politically, but also psychologically.”
The film provides a lens on the underlying dynamics of power, race and sexuality in ‘80s South Africa, a legacy which most in the country continues to grapple with 40 years later. “If you are initiated into a certain kind of attitude at a formative time in your life, it is very hard to eradicate that,” Hermanus observes. “I really do commend the many fathers and uncles and grandfathers who are alive and well in South Africa today, who have done that work to try and expunge this attitude from their minds and the way that they interface with other South Africans. It is a lot of work. The project of South Africa right now is all of us having to undo a large amount of racial prefacing and racial attitudes.”
But is the pace of social change in South Africa too slow? “It’s going at different speeds in different sections of society,” Hermanus says. There is, he believes, room for improvement in media content. He references certain TV channels “where all of the content on that channel will be devoid of Black people. It is bizarre that in South Africa you can still have a sense of segregation where, if you choose, you can have an existence where it’s just feeding you a kind of nostalgia in a weird way for the life before the end of Apartheid.” By contrast, in Black-centric content, he notes, there seems to be a lot more integration. Consequently, the inclusion of gay or lesbian or queer characters in content has been relegated to the back-of-the-line because South Africans “are still confronting these major racial intersections that [they’ve been] avoiding.”
Hermanus points out that Skoonheid, which was made a decade ago, has never played on South African television. “It’s still too much,” he observes. “It’s played on television all over the world. So, that says a lot about where we are. And the speed that we are going at.”