I bring up Kubrick’s Vietnam drama in 1987 because much of “Moffie” takes place in a brutal training camp designed specifically to turn teenagers into heartless killing machines. The recruits are tormented by Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser), who is just as brutal as R. Lee Ermey’s drill sergeant although far less interesting. Most of its dialogue involves shouting the N word and the homophobic slur the subtitles translate whenever the movie title is spoken. Unlike “Full Metal Jacket”, however, those growls are virtually indistinguishable outside of our protagonist, Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer). When an exhausted recruit blows his head with his rifle, I wondered if I had ever met this character. Nicholas looks on with a giddy, emotionless expression on his face, which is how he spends about 90% of this movie. He’s such a symbolic, one-dimensional drone that even the rare tender moment fails to elicit much response from him.
Nicholas, 16, enlisted in 1981 to serve the two years of military conscription required for all white males. We are told about this requirement in the first headlines, but the press release explains why it is necessary: “the threat of communism and of ‘die swart gevaar’ (the so-called black danger) is at an all time high. But that’s not the only danger Nicolas faces. I would have liked to read this release before watching the film, as it would have given me the foresight that this film had no intention of speaking to a viewer like me. I may have been able to better calibrate my expectations. When the press release implies that the oppressed minority is a danger to its oppressor protagonist, it is clear that the film aims to speak out and identify with the oppressor.
It’s an intriguing path to follow, as Hermanus is a noir director who casts his film in an explicitly white gaze. The two times black characters appear, they are either racially abused by teenage recruits or killed by Nicholas. Their suffering is the only characteristic of their humanity. This first scene implies that “Moffie” will somehow question apartheid, but it doesn’t, I wonder why this scene exists if the film intends to show the role of the military in the promotion of hatred; these children have already learned it at home. This last scene occurs after the film switches to war film mode, showing the fruits of the labor of military training. I was more interested in asking the director about his choices than watching them play out, reminding myself of Gene Siskel’s question whether a documentary on the film would be more interesting than the film itself.