Remember the name Oliver Hermanus, folks. We have a feeling you’ll hear it again.
At just 37 Hermanus has already four acclaimed films under his belt. His debut, Shirley Adams earned positive notice on the international film circuit, while his follow-up, the queer-themed drama Beauty, scored the coveted Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. His third film, The Endless River, also became the first South African film to compete for top honors at the Venice Film Festival.
Now Hermanus returns to two of his most personal themes: queer and South African identity. His film Moffie (the South African equivalent of “f*ggot”), based on Andre Carl van der Merwe’s memoir, follows the story of Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer), a young, white South African soldier conscripted for military duty during the 1981 border war between South Africa and Angola. During basic training, he encounters a violent atmosphere of racism and homophobia. Nicholas even watches as two of his fellow soldiers are publicly outed and tortured before the shouting crowds. For Nicholas, who begins to recognize his attraction to his bunkmate Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), the hostility towards gay men becomes a war within himself.
We caught Hermanus during pre-production duties on his latest film (more on that later) to chat about the film, a changing South Africa, and how the scenes of violence and racism challenged his own strength of will. Moffie opens in theaters and On Demand April 9.
How did you first learn of Andre Carl van der Merwe’s memoir? Is his story fairly well known in South Africa?
I met the producers. We spoke about it. I’d never read it; they sent it to me. It impacted me so I said I’d make the film.
What was your approach to the story? Do you see the film as a love story? Or is it one about the brutalization of innocence?
When I first read it, I considered what about the story would make it really personal to me. It was very difficult because I wasn’t born at the time and I’m not a white South African. I didn’t have the experience of being conscripted. My father wasn’t conscripted. So the connector was that it’s about a gay teenager who doesn’t know that he’s gay until he has an identifying moment. And that moment happens to take place during the most horrific moment in the army during the war with Angola. So I guess, my in, in the end, was the word “moffie;” how I relate to the word, what the word has meant in my life and how it has become something that has helped me identify my own journey of self. In adapting the book into the film, I was looking for a way of telling that story that felt personal.
On the subject of brutality, when you make a film like this which involves a good deal of violence and especially psychological torture of your main characters, first, what kind of atmosphere do you keep on set to create the mood for a scene? How do you prepare, psychologically, to direct a scene?
I think my attitude toward those complex moments—and I’ve done complex moments in all my films—is that what I am after as director is a sense of honesty and reality in those moments. That’s what makes them hard to shoot: you have to resist the impulse to soften or sidestep it. You have to kind of push into it, lean into it. There is a moment, always on a set when you shoot those kinds of scenes, you can sense that the crew, in particular, is uncomfortable.
You have to get to that moment because you want people to have an immediate reaction. The film would fail if those moments are circumnavigated by a director who doesn’t want to make other people uncomfortable. I communicate to the crew very clearly what the day or scene will be about, and of course, they’ll have read it. There has to be a buy-in by everyone on the cast and crew that what we’re endeavoring to do is create a real moment as much as we can that’s safe.
The other issue is your cast. Many directors I could name right now have been accused of pushing their actors too far, to the point of actual psychological damage. How do you protect your actors from that?
It’s always conversations. There has to be a trust, a safe space. They have to be able to detach and remember that it’s the experience of the character, not the experience of themselves. I think it’s about as much clarity as you can give an actor in the way they approach these moments. It doesn’t mean it’s not difficult for them to do. We have scenes in this film that show acts of racism, where a white actor is committing an act of racism and the black actor is experiencing an act of racism. It’s a negotiation with both of those actors, because for both, it’s very difficult. They both buy into the purpose of the scene—it’s something they want to affect the audience. It might shift the mind of someone in the audience, it might affect an audience member in a way that’s for the better.
I need to ask about one particular sequence. That’s the pool flashback, where young Nicholas is shamed and accused of masturbating in the showers. The whole scene plays without a cut and runs several minutes, which is impressive unto itself. I also know from other interviews that is not part of Andre van der Merwe’s story; it’s part of your story. First, how do you develop an approach to a scene like that? Why was it so important to play without a cut?
When I was developing the film, I needed to get to the heart of the story. Any writer/director has to do that, and you have to get to the scene that, in some way, plays out the subtext of the purpose of the film. That scene is very much the subtext of our film. It’s the scene that unlocks and understands the character’s repression and suppression of himself. It also unlocks the nature of this word, “moffie,” and how it operates. So, inputting that in the film and using an experience from my own life, it’s a very liberating and freeing experience. There’s something about that scene I feel very privileged to have achieved. Not only do I get to infuse my film with my own heart and soul, but it’s also very cathartic.
The technical side of it, shooting in one take, was a simple choice. I wanted the audience to experience this in real-time as an episode that unfolds. The tension of the scene needs to be in real-time; that’s the only way you sense it as a memory. It’s a single, continuous experience of a young person. So that was very clear to me in the beginning. I also knew by pitching it to my one-take-wonder director of photography that he would be instantly enthralled by the task of shooting the movie.
It’s a fantastic sequence. This film fits very well in your filmography, in that it deals with South African characters, and it deals with gay male identity. Your film Beauty, which I regret I’ve not seen, did this as well, and also did so in the context of a near-obsessive, taboo relationship. What attracts you to these subjects?
I think it’s probably just being in my late 20s/early 30s. I think at that time in my life, the themes of sexuality and identity and beauty being a curse and a crime, are things that had been in my head. I appreciate my attitude as a filmmaker as someone who is making personal work. It’s an artistic sensibility. I want my work to be ways in which I’m working myself out. So Moffie will probably be the last film I ever make about sexuality in the context of South Africa. Maybe what I gravitate to in the future will be some other relationship that I gravitate to with my identity. I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to make work that allows me to introspect in this way.
How does making a film like this change you? What clarity does it offer?
I mean, there’s something about making a film—being able to tell a story to an audience in the dark all over the world is a strange, other-worldly experience. It might be something you never want to even tell anyone in your own life. I never even told my parents, when I made Beauty—they saw it without any understanding of what it was about. There’s something about the privilege of having a platform, having a collective audience taking your stories that is incredibly wonderful. It’s something to cherish and protect. I’m very conscious of that privilege. So I think my relationship with choosing stories and making films is what I want to say to other people in a way that I can connect to other people in a meaningful way.
As a South African yourself, I want to know a bit about your experience. The British pushed this idea that being gay, being non-white and being a communist were all sort of the absolute worst thing anyone could be. There’s a lot in that statement. Have attitudes changed? Does the pain ever go away?
The first thing you say about change in South Africa is—I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you today having had the opportunity to make the films I’ve made or tell the stories I have without that change. Historically, my family was oppressed by the Apartheid regime, so I am the embodiment of change, of someone who was allowed equal opportunities and freedoms and access to education. Chance, luck, desire, personal want—this is the demonstration of how society has changed. Of course, we’re still faced with practical problems of trying to become a post-racial country, of trying to interrogate our history. But on a fundamental level, it’s always important to underline just how bad things were before. I’ve never been denied as a person for the majority of my life, which is not something I can say about my mother or father.
So what are you working on right now?
I’m currently, dangerously, about to make a remake of a Kurusawa film called Ikiru.
Oh my lord. Really?
We’ll be shooting the film in London this summer.
And scary. I’m drinking a lot.
Moffie opens in theaters and On Demand April 9.