‘Moffie’ is the standard homophobic term of abuse in South Africa, apparently across various languages. This film has been described as a ‘queer war movie’. In 1981 what the South African authorities described as the ‘Border War’ was in operation along the boundary separating the former ‘South-West Africa’ from Angola. (Many of us outside South Africa thought of it as a ‘Liberation War’ on behalf of SWAPO – the South West Africa People’s Organisation.) Conscription in South Africa meant every young man over 16 was subject to 2 years National Service. Nicholas Van der Swart has an Afrikaans name courtesy of his stepfather, but his biological father is an English-speaking South African. He finds himself in a predominantly Afrikaans intake for basic training.
The basic military training of raw conscripts is a familiar narrative in film cultures across the world. It always has an element of brutality, often via the figure of the Sergeant-Major or equivalent. Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket is perhaps the best-known example, but there are many others. I’ve seen a few but none quite so foul and repulsive as the treatment handed out to the young men here. It’s a brutality delivered with constant swearing and sexist and homophobic insults. The conscripts are duped into thinking that they are fighting to protect the women and children of South Africa from the ‘blacks’, the communists and the threat of homosexuality (illegal in apartheid SA). Two conscripts found in the same toilet cubicle together are treated harshly with terrible outcomes. Nicholas defends himself in the intense testosterone-filled Afrikaner barracks, but he is spotted by another gay conscript. We learn about Nick’s earlier teenage years in a flashback and are prepared for what might happen as basic training continues.
There are only two direct contacts between the conscripts and black Africans. One is treated in a vile way, the other is an enemy soldier. I can’t remember if it was a line of dialogue or something I read in a review but I was struck by the observation that however evil the apartheid regime was in its treatment of black Africans, at least it wasn’t illegal to be a black African (but it was illegal to be in the wrong place). It was illegal to be gay and the psychiatrists of the South African Defence Force (like the Israeli Defence Force, quite happy to be offensive and cross into other countries) were prepared to use any methods to ‘convert’ young gay men.
This the fourth feature by writer-director Olivier Hermanus. One of the first three films, Beauty (2011), also had a gay theme and did get a UK release by the LGBTQ specialist distributor Peccadillo Pictures. Moffie is a UK co-production but so far doesn’t seem to have a UK distribution deal. It certainly deserves one. The script for this film was adapted from an autobiographical novel by André Carl van der Merwe. The adaptation produces a confident, disciplined piece of filmmaking with a stunning central performance by Kai Luke Brummer in the central role. Many of the other young men in the cast are non-professionals. The photography by Jamie D. Ramsay is equally impressive, especially since the film appears to have been shot entirely in Western Cape Province. The restrained score by Braam du Toit also includes some local pop material including an allusion to the ‘Sugar Man’ phenomenon in the country and a local version of the Isley Brothers ‘Summer Breeze’ during the flashback sequence to Nick’s early teens.
Once the basic training comes to an end, the brutal treatment of the conscript becomes less pronounced, though it is still there and increasingly insidious. Ramsay’s camera becomes more lyrical in presenting the bodies of the young men, often naked in the showers or skinny dipping en masse. In one scene they play volleyball bare-chested and in shorts and, reading reviews, I see that I wasn’t the only one to recognise what seems to be an hommage to Beau Travail (France 1999), the Claire Denis film about another set of gay relationships in a colonial army in Africa (the French Foreign Legion in Djibouti). These scenes are indicative of one of the great strengths of the film. Here is Jonathan Romney from his Screendaily Review commenting on the changing depiction after the earlier brutality:
That Hermanus is able, subsequently, to portray these young white men as human, vulnerable, even sympathetic, is a sign of the moral seriousness and subtlety of his approach.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but I will say that the film does not have a conventional resolution. IMdB suggests that the film involves ‘War. Romance. Drama’. I think calling what Nick experiences ‘romance’ is misleading. Sensitivity, emotional bonding, loyalty certainly and desire for intimacy definitely but many of these young white men were traumatised and scarred by their experiences in the SAFD. Thirty years on they still find it difficult to process. All of this means that the film might struggle to find audiences outside South Africa, but I hope not.
This is a major achievement for a black filmmaker from South Africa who has made an important social statement as well as one of the best films of the year. If you get the chance, do go and see it. It opens in South Africa in 2020 and is still visiting festivals like Leeds.
The screening was preceded by brief talking heads, the director John Trengrove and lead actor Nakhane Touré, giving some insight into the film. Interesting though this is, I don’t want ‘insight’ into a film just before I’m watching it; I prefer sometimes to see films with no preconceptions. I’m not sure what the point of this preface is, A Fantastic Woman had one also, because it’s not selling the film as the audience are already in place.
Whilst I’m on a moan: I understand cinemas need to show adverts and trailers for economic reasons but it’s always a relief to see the BBFC certificate as that means the marketing messages are over. Except before this film after the certificate another promo – for Selfridges – appeared. Unlikely as it may be, if any marketing person for this shop is reading: the effect of this on me is to make me think ‘fuck off’ to the company that is further delaying my pleasure of the film!
I knew nothing of The Wound before sitting down in the cinema other than it was a South African film. The number of producers in the credits indicated a heavy European involvement which is presumably why the film has managed to get distribution in the UK. It’s a good film so deserves to be seen but I’m sure there are many good films from Africa that we never get a chance to watch. The fact that The Wound won best first feature at the London Film Festival also would have helped.
Although it is an international co-production this seemed an entirely African film; it focuses on the initiation rites of the Xhosa people where boys become men after being circumcised and spending a week on a mountain tended by a carer. The portrayal seemed authentic to me and there’s an ethnographic (to an ignorant westerner) fascination at seeing a portrayal of this rite. But there’s more to the film because the protagonist, superbly played, is a closeted homosexual and so he fails to be a ‘man’ in the traditional sense. Another outsider is the ‘city boy’, a place that is defined as effeminate by the rural tradition that the ceremony derives from. At the same time, it’s clear the ‘country boys’ envy urban wealth.
There’s plenty of melodramatic conflict in the narrative and it is shot in the beautiful ‘cradle of life’ World Heritage Site in Eastern Cape. Trengrove tends to keep his camera close to the men and boys which makes for some vertiginous wobbling when they are running but there are some artful compositions to enjoy too.
Trengrove’s introduction tells us the film was controversial because of its depiction of gay Africans; homophobia is, it seems, a traditional value too. Touré stated he had to withdraw from a film because of death threats. Hence The Wound is a brave film as it confronts a taboo subject and it does it with style.
The Forgotten Kingdom is well worth seeing and raises several interesting questions. South Africa is the portal through which American, European and Indian filmmakers get to access to the natural beauty, the local cultures and the industrial infrastructure of ‘African’ film production. The success of film agencies in attracting inward investment doesn’t yet seem to have produced the development of a thriving locally-focused South African filmmaking – or at least the films that are made rarely make it into the international film market. This issue is briefly discussed in The Global Film Book in Chapter 8 and is explored via a handful of films on this site.
Mainly, what we get to see in the UK are films financed from the US, UK or other European industries which make films featuring African stories but often with US/UK stars and creative teams. The Forgotten Kingdom is an American-financed film made by an American writer-director with some South African creative talent. Properly speaking it is also a Lesotho film shot primarily in that country using many local performers, most of whom had no previous experience. The production harks back to the period of ‘development films’ – a form of filmmaking in Anglophone Africa that has been funded by various public sector and charities/trusts seeking to represent various social issues in a broadly educational context. In this case part of the funding comes from PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief). The bulk of the money comes from independent companies in the US and South Africa with support from the Independent Film Project.
This process of ‘Western’ filmmakers making authentic local films in Southern Africa can produce excellent films that enable local talents to shine. On this blog and on The Case for Global Film there are several examples of such films in which a filmmaker immerses himself/herself in local culture and local storytelling and finds a suitable cast and locations. These films are quite different from the Hollywood mainstream films like Clint Eastwood’s Invictus (2009) with Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. The writer-director of The Forgotten Kingdom is Andrew Mudge who first visited Lesotho in 2006 and spent several months there learning about local languages and local cultures.
Lesotho is a land-locked country, a mountainous enclave in South Eastern South Africa. It’s home to some 2 million people most of whom live in rural areas and the major employment is in textile factories (which produce export goods including many American clothing brands). Many people leave Lesotho for work in South Africa. Lesotho has a serious HIV/AIDS problem and both the impact of this and the impact of absent fathers plays a role in the film narrative. Atang (‘Joseph’) is a young man living in Johannesburg when he learns that his father, from whom he is estranged, is sick in a nearby township. He arrives too late. His father is dead and his son must take the body back to Lesotho where it will be buried next to that of his mother. This ritual – workers and AIDs victims returning for burial is a common occurrence according to the film’s Press Notes. Atang finds himself back ‘home’ after 15 years and feels out of place until he meets Dineo, a woman from his schooldays who is now a teacher but who has not married. She lives with her father and younger sister who has AIDS and needs nursing. Circumstances then force Atang and Dineo apart and he must make a difficult journey through the mountains to find her again, helped by a mysterious orphan boy.
So, here is an American independent film made in Lesotho and Johannesburg with a small budget and four professional actors, two recognisable from Tsotsi (2002), Zenzo Ngqobe as Atang and Jerry Mofokeng as Dineo’s father. The relatively inexperienced Nozipho Nkelemba is Dineo and the boy is one of the untrained actors, Lebohang Ntsane. I thought they all performed well. Mudge required them to use Sotho in the Lesotho sequences and ‘Tsotsitaal’ or township slang in the Jo’burg scenes. Overall there is relatively little dialogue and it is mostly quite straightforward. Much of the narrative is visual, captured by DoP Carlos Carvalho who trained in Port Elizabeth and previously worked on advertising and public service films. Lesotho offers wonderful landscapes and the possibilities of ‘magic hour’ shooting to enhance the feeling of being in a special place. Mudge selected a fast-cutting frenetic style for the early Jo’burg scenes and then switched to more measured longer takes and wide shots for the Lesotho scenes. The music score by Robert Miller is sufficiently low-key to match and not overwhelm the visuals and is augmented by popular local songs and choral singing. I recognised the Hugh Masekela song ‘Stimela’ – about the coal train that brings workers from other parts of Southern Africa (including Lesotho) to the mines.
What is most effective about the film for me is the mixture of the sociological and the ‘magical’ in the narrative. I don’t want to spoil the narrative so I’ll just point out that Andrew Mudge uses those two important elements of Lesotho society – migration for work and the impact of AIDS – alongside scenes where Atang re-discovers his culture aided by the orphan boy. I tend to agree with the reviewer who questioned whether this boy was ‘real’ or a figment of Atang’s imagination. He certainly acts as a catalyst for Atang’s re-discovery of his culture.
Any qualms that I had before the screening that this would be a ‘worthy’ film but possibly lacking in authenticity were not realised. I think the film works and there is a wealth of material on the official website which explains the production process, including a detailed blog documenting the director’s research and preparation. I was pleased to see that the film had its ‘royal premiere’ in the Lesotho capital, Maseru (in the only cinema) in front of King Letsie III , but also that it played on mobile screens in many of the rural districts where it had been shot. It played many American Film Festivals in 2013/14 and went on release in South Africa in 2014 but has taken some time to reach the UK and Ireland. It is only playing in the UK and Ireland at selected cinemas so go to the official website to find venues.
South African TV News Item:
The trailer from the Official Website:
Plot for Peace tells an ‘untold story’. The whole world knows that Nelson Mandela was finally freed from prison in 1990 and that in 1994, after South Africa’s first democratic elections, he became President Mandela. The apartheid regime was no more. Many people in South Africa, black and white, had struggled over many years to end the system. War in the ‘front-line states’ against the South African armed forces was a ‘hot’ feature of the Cold War during the 1980s and around the world thousands of anti-apartheid activists fought to isolate the apartheid regime. There have been many books, films and plays telling stories about individuals in the struggles and more recently about Mandela himself, but few have attempted to explain how the battle was won without a massive conflagration and the devastation of South Africa itself.
Plot for Peace tries to give a different perspective on the events of the 1980s, focusing on one man, a ‘fixer’ who was able over several years to bring together the leaders of many of the major players in the global struggle and to establish at least the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated end to apartheid. Jean-Yves Ollivier is a remarkable man who was awarded an honour by the new South African government almost without any publicity. For some of those who did know what he had done he was the mysterious ‘Monsieur Jacques’. His story has now been put together in a film narrative in which, as far as possible, Ollivier and the leading figures he worked with tell the story in their own words.
Here the filmmakers discuss how the documentary came about:
and here Jean-Yves Ollivier discusses what he thinks about sanctions and the need to negotiate in a range of other global conflicts:
It’s difficult to see any African films in the UK so I was pleased to be sent a copy of this ‘neo-noir crime thriller’ by its North American distributor Traverse Media. The film is available for download on iTunes and other streaming services in North America. There are fairly regular US and UK productions shot in South Africa and released internationally. Usually, however, the lead roles are given to black actors from the US or UK. I often avoid such films because I suspect that they are inauthentic in their representations of South Africa. I accept that this may be unreasonable, but there it is. How to Steal 2 Million has a star cast drawn directly from film, TV and stage actors in the country. Its writer-director Charlie Vundla was born in the US and trained in film school there but grew up mostly in Johannesburg where he now lives.
This is a classy production with an experienced crew and some heavyweight contributions including an effective musical score from the internationally-renowned Trevor Jones (born in Cape Town but mostly working in the UK and Hollywood). The technical achievements and the performances are very good and whatever it cost the money was well spent. Charlie Vundla in the EPK/Press Pack (see the official website) tells us that there were two initial ideas that were merged – a hostage drama in a house that goes wrong and a noirish tale set in an unnamed South African city. What eventually emerged as a script is a familiar and conventional neo-noir. The central character is Jack, newly released from prison and attempting to go straight. He’s a man of honour, the classic ‘criminal with a code to live by’. Of course, things don’t work out and he falls back into a deal with his ex-partner, Julius, the man who stole Jack’s woman. He also becomes involved with a new woman, a streetwise hustler played with verve by Terry Pheto the young star of Tsotsi. The plot has the number of twists and turns to be expected in a noir and the loyalties of the characters are called into question because the central narrative involves various family and marital relationships with the prospect of betrayals. The version of the film I saw, from the US, was only some 85 mins. The South African version appears to have been more like 109 mins. That perhaps explains why the ending seems rushed. I’m intrigued as to what has been cut as 20 plus minutes is quite a chunk of screen time. Still, I can only comment on what I’ve seen.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the subdued colour palette with its predominance of greens, blue-greys, browns and purples. As in all the best noirs the action is often staged at night in dimly-lit bars or in daytime in desolate locations. I found both the cinematography and editing to be very effective. The film’s use of locations is purely ‘generic’ in that there is no attempt to represent the city in any way which would identify it as a ‘real’ place in South Africa. Instead we get the bars, gambling dens, back alleys and car parks of the generic city and the suburban road of big houses for the wealthy with gates and armed guards. The meetings of the criminals take place in anonymous places such as a zoo and an art gallery – although these might have some kind of symbolic meaning. The finale offers us what appears to be a windblown slagheap of sand or dust – again, quite effective as a backdrop for a lone figure in long shot. Jack lives in a run-down room, Julius in a swish apartment. The only other ‘personal’ feature is the aged car that Jack drives (which reminds me of the car Bob Hoskins drives in Mona Lisa (UK 1986) after his release from prison). The one distinctive setting that I think I remember from Tsotsi is a view over the city from a hilltop where the Terry Pheto character meets her mother. The impact of this sequence was rather lost for me because of the use of very shallow focus, quite dramatic here with the effect that the city virtually disappeared in the blur.
The strength of the film for me is in the performances with nearly all of the cast very experienced actors from South African television. Menzi Ngubane as Jack is terrific and Rapulana Seiphemo as Julius is a worthy opponent. These are the kinds of actors who could appear in international films in lead roles, not just secondary roles. The one established actor on film and in the theatre is the veteran John Kani who I’m fairly sure I saw on stage in London in the 1970s. Kani, along with Athol Fugard and Winston Ntshona was one of the main sources of our understanding of apartheid South Africa in that period. How to Steal 2 Million is an interesting and well-made crime film. I just wish that it gave us slightly more of the distinctive flavour of the society in which it is set. The dialogue is a mixture of English and at least one local language. As in most global films I see these days from Africa or Asia, characters easily slide from one language into another, often in mid-sentence. I had no difficulty following either the accented English or the subtitles. I can’t find any references to which local languages are being spoken – can anyone help? I’d certainly watch something else by this director and cast and I’d like to see this film get a wider release. It won four awards at the 2012 ‘African Movie Academy Awards’ for Best Film, Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Terry Pheto) and Best Editing. The AMMAS are held in Nigeria and mostly feature films from South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya and other parts of anglophone Africa, offering a contrast to the screenings at FESPACO in Ougadougou. I hope a UK distributor will think about bringing some of the winners to the UK.
South African cinema is briefly discussed in Chapter 8 of The Global Film Book.