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Oliver Hermanus: ‘Moffie’ Links White Supremacy and Homophobia as Macho Perversions

The South African writer-director discusses his new film and the complex history of his native country on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence.”
Oliver Hermanus, director of ‘MOFFIE.’ [Photo courtesy of Daniel Rutland Manners. An IFC Films Release.]

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“Moffie,” a new South African movie billed as an apartheid-era “queer war film,” tells the story of  the closeted 16-year-old Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) and his conscription into South Africa’s military service to fight a war against communist Angola in the 1980s. The film, in movie theaters and On Demand platforms, is based on  André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel “Moffie”–a homophobic slur. It explores with great nuance the complex realities of apartheid-era South Africa and the dangerous ideologies pervasive in its solely white male armed forces. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” writer-director Oliver Hermanus talks to host Robert Scheer about the many threads his film captures as it takes us back to a time and place in which racism and homophobia were both extremely deadly. Setting up the main argument of the film as he saw it, Scheer explains how, in fact, both of these terrors have the same commingled roots. 

“At first I thought [while watching ‘Moffie’], where are the Black people in this?” begins Scheer. “And then I realized the brilliance of this film is [that] this whiteness is not just an assault on Black people–I shouldn’t just say ‘not just’–or people of color, or poorer people, or it’s not just a disguise for imperialism, but in fact, it actually represents an ideology of masculinity, of purity, which we saw in Nazi Germany, but actually reached its most respectable point in the South African experience.” 

Hermanus agrees that the global politics at play in Africa are critical to understanding the context of “Moffie.” 

“What was interesting to me in researching the story was that [these] white teenagers were being pulled systematically into the military [and] immediately trained to see the Black Communists–which in Afrikaans were referred to as the Swart Gevaar, which means the Black Danger–as the big threat that they were being exposed to. The big propaganda [that] was being sold to them was that […] there was this communist Black threat, and if we did not defend our border, if we did not actively fight them as white men, as this militant group of white men who were the owners of South Africa, that it would be the end of their way of life. 

“They were being told that they were fighting a war, not only against an enemy [that] was in danger of taking over their country, but more so inflicting their country with communist ideas,” adds Hermanus. “Of course apartheid as a system was always [based on the] marriage of state and church. It was the Dutch Reform Church that was the [sort of] colonist backbone of the apartheid system [and also] trickled into the homes of white South Africa.” 

Hermanus, who has directed several other critically acclaimed films including “Beauty (Skoonheid)” (2011), and “The Endless River” (2015), explains how this combination of ideologies created a “social order” in South Africa in which the white man was at the very top and the Black woman at the very bottom–a system, Scheer points out, not unlike the segregation that the U.S. had institutionalized at home long before it finally condemned South African apartheid. The writer-director also opens up about what his multiracial family lineage says about the history of South Africa and unravels the significance of the word “moffie” to his film and more generally to 1980s South Africa. 

“This world that ‘Moffie’ explores is the factory where these men were being made and being fashioned,” says the writer-director. “ I wanted to explore what that was like. And the backbone of that was this word moffie. Moffie being this word that is used as a negative; it is the weapon of shame that is used as the sort of outline of what you should not be. The word gets used to kind of define the limitations of masculinity. If you are described or referred to as a moffie, at the time, it didn’t really mean that you were gay; it was more so that you were lacking in the masculine qualities that the perfect Afrikaner or white South African man needed to embody as a soldier, and as a leader, as a representive of that superior race, as it was seen at the time. 

“So this really was the machine, the war machine that wasn’t just building soldiers, but it was building men,” he concludes. 

Listen to the full discussion between Hermanus and Scheer as the two grapple with the urgent issues at play in “Moffie” and examine the shared histories between the U.S. and South Africa of white supremacist toxicmasculinity that has plagued the entire world. 

RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where I hasten to say the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case it’s Oliver Hermanus, who is–I don’t know if it’s big enough praise of him–certainly the most important director associated ever with South Africa. I probably can be nitpicked on that, but certainly the big star, and internationally has made very important films; I’m going to let him bring in whatever films he wants. Because I want to focus, in the time we have, on a film called Moffie, which is actually–we’re on KCRW in Los Angeles, and the film is opening today. And not the day we’re recording it, we recorded a week before. GBut you have an opportunity, actually, to go watch this film that we’re talking about. 

And I want to just, full confession here, this is not some kind of critical evaluation or something. I’m a big fan of this movie. And I want to explain, quickly, why and not take too much time with our director, but sort of where I want to go with the discussion. Because at first, watching this movie, I thought, wait a minute. This is so singular; it’s the story of a 16-year-old in South Africa, from the English rather than the Afrikaner part, and so forth. And it turns out he’s gay, and he has a gay relationship. And the film is an exploration of the brutality of homophobia, and it also takes place in this war, where there’s supposed to be this Communist menace in Angola backed by the Soviet Union, and actually Cuba as well, and it’s drawn into the Cold War, and so South Africa is mobilizing. 

And you’re watching this movie, and you think well, wait a minute, but it’s so singular–it’s a line that the director puts out there about being gay in the South African military, which is a very brutal experience to begin with. It’s horrible, and they’re forcing people to not be gay, and that sort of thing. But then I realized, the more I thought about it, that what you’ve done is put out a line out there about whiteness. And you pull this line, it becomes almost a noose around the neck of the pretenses of whiteness, which we’ve of course seen a lot now, with Trump and everything. But we saw it with Nazi Germany; after all, the most bizarre, barbaric manifestation of whiteness; it employs, you know, notions of Christianity, civilization, et cetera, et cetera. 

But at first I thought–but you know, where are the Black people in this? And then I realized the brilliance of this film is this whiteness is not just an assault on Black people–I shouldn’t just say “not just”–or people of color, or poorer people, or it’s not just a disguise for imperialism. But in fact, it actually represents an ideology of masculinity, of purity, which we saw in Nazi Germany, but actually reached its most respectable point in the South African experience. 

And I’m going to turn it over now to Oliver Hermanus, who has lived this life, and described it. But it hit me, the power of this film for me was, wait a minute, South Africa was celebrated in the United States, in important quarters. I remember debating William Buckley, the great leader of conservatism in America, about Rhodesia and South Africa, which he supported; he supported Ian Smith in Rhodesia. And what South Africa represented in the context of the Cold War was a country that we supported–the United States–as a kind of lesser evil, when we talked about it as evil. And people like Nelson Mandela were called Communists, whether they were or not, and some of them might have been; there was a Communist Party among whites and so forth in South Africa, and Black people were involved.

But I think this movie rises to, really, a study of whiteness as an ideology. And that is what’s tormenting us now. It becomes the main vehicle for imperialism, for racism, for–so, yes, homophobia is a dread illness. But this is a film that goes way beyond that, and examines really the basic conceit of Western culture, which is whiteness, and Christian whiteness. Now, maybe I got it all wrong and it’s not the movie you made, and Oliver Hermanus, you take it from there. Far be it from me to tell you what your film’s about.

OH: I mean, I think on many levels you might be right. I think that when I approached this book–it was a book, it was written by a man who had gone to the army and experienced this conscription. And the early eighties was the sort of height of it. South Africa was, had been pulled into this border war, sort of soft border war with Angola, and Angola was being viewed as a Communist threat, and was being sort of supported, and its military was getting its sort of wares from Cuba. And South Africa was being roped into this by America, in fact, by the CIA, to fight this ideology war at this border that ironically today is no longer part of South Africa, and is now the north border of the country of Namibia, which came into existence at the end of this conflict.

And so you are seeing a sort of ideology at play. And what was interesting to me in researching the story was that these men were being pulled–these white men, these white teenagers were being pulled systematically into the military, and they were being conscripted. And they were immediately trained to see the Communists–which was an idea, the Communists, the Black Communists, which in Afrikaans were referred to as the Swart Gevaar, which means the Black Danger. The big threat that they were being exposed to, the big propaganda, the propagandist idea that was being sold to them, was that there was this Black threat, there was this Communist Black threat, and if we did not defend our border, if we did not actively fight them as white men, as this militant group of white men who were the owners of South Africa, that it would be the end of their way of life. 

And so that was kind of what these teenage boys were led to believe. They were being told that they were fighting a war, not only against an enemy that was trying to, that was in danger of taking over their country, but more so inflicting their country with Communist ideas. And of course apartheid as a system was always a system that was the marriage of state and church. It was the Dutch Reform Church that was the sort of backbone, colonist backbone of the apartheid system. And also, you know, trickled into the homes of white South Africa. 

It was the nature of–the nature of the country at the time was that, you know, the man was the man of the house; the white man was at the top of the food chain of the sort of social order, and the Black woman, I guess, would be at the bottom of that chain. But, you know, if you were–a white man occupied space, and a white man occupied agency and occupied opportunity and authority and a first-citizen kind of space. And every other man, of other races including my race–because I am mixed race, and my father as an example, and every other man of a different race, was a lesser man, was of less value, and had less agency. 

And so this world that Moffie explores is the factory where these men were being made and being fashioned. And I wanted to explore what that was like. And the backbone of that was this word moffie. Moffie being this word that is used as a negative; it is the weapon of shame that is used as the sort of outline of what you should not be. And so the word gets used to kind of define the limitations of masculinity. And if you are described or referred to as a moffie, at the time, it didn’t really mean that you were gay; it was more so that you were lacking in the masculine qualities that the perfect Afrikaner or white South African man needed to embody as a soldier, and as a leader, as a represented of that superior race, as it was seen at the time. 

So this really was the machine, the war machine that wasn’t just building soldiers, but it was building men, and that was–that was kind of what I was hoping to explore, I guess. 

RS: But what you’ve explored is obviously not restricted to South Africa. South Africa is very important, because that actually was the most respectable version–respectable in the eyes even of famous American conservatives like William Buckley, as I mentioned, but plenty–the United States supported apartheid. 

OH: Yeah, apartheid–no, it went on for as long as it did only because the world refused to stop it. The world didn’t see a great interest in stopping it. I would say that, you know, the major crack in apartheid really only happened, I think, when sanctions finally came into play in the eighties. When, I think, the sort of social movement in other countries like America and the United Kingdom, when the public of those countries were starting to have very anti-apartheid–ah, expressing anti-apartheid attitudes, and there were rallies, and there were–there suddenly became sort of celebrities got involved. And Nelson Mandela then shifted in the mind space of the world, going from him being a terrorist who was in jail, to being a hero of the anti-apartheid movement, and a struggle leader. You know, there was always the idea that–there was always the memory of Margaret Thatcher referring to him as a terrorist at some point in her tenure. 

And so it wasn’t–I would say that, you know, from my perspective as a young person–I was born in ’83, but what I kind of remember is–how I kind of noted the world’s attitude to apartheid was more so when celebrities and bands and famous musicians and famous artists and, you know, that collection of people saying they would not come to South Africa, they would not support South Africa, they would not entertain South Africans, if the system didn’t change. 

My father, as a personal example, my father is a massive chess fan and a very good chess player, and Kasparov came to South Africa one day. He came to Cape Town, and my father, in the middle of this press conference that Kasparov was having at a hotel–my father being part of the political movement, a sports union, anti-apartheid sports union–you know, interrupted this press conference, walked up to Kasparov, and delivered a letter to him which stated to him that he needed to leave the country because you cannot play normal sports in an abnormal society, and by him being there he was endorsing the apartheid system. And Kasparov famously got on a plane that night and never returned. 

But it took those kinds of acts, it took these acts of identifying apartheid as unpopular, that was slowly kind of cracking at its–and the international community kind of taking an interest in the suffering of the majority of South African people. 

RS: Yeah, just as a little anecdote on this, you know, it did take, and it’s one of the great successes of a cultural, endorsed movement for change. And we’ve seen other examples; actually we’ve seen on the whole issue of gay rights tremendous change, because celebrities were willing to speak out. We’ve seen that with Black Lives Matter. But it’s interesting, you were born in ’83; I’m much older than you, and I remember as a kid in the Bronx, in the seventh grade, which was in the forties, I actually wrote a paper about the conditions in South Africa. Because in my family we had leftist papers coming in, my garment-worker parents, and I wrote my wonderful seventh-grade paper about attacking this apartheid system. And I was given an F, because I wasn’t quoting the New York Times. I was quoting, I don’t know, the Daily Worker, the Communist paper, or the PM, or the liberal paper or whatever, you know, on the left side of life there in the Bronx. 

And I’ll never–that was actually the formative experience of my life. And I remember, you know, Nelson Mandela was attacked as a Communist, and other leaders of the movement. And the reason I’m saying there is–everybody has to go see this movie, and I’ll tell you why. It’s our capacity to accept brutality, to be brutal, to be destructive. You have this incredibly appealing lead person, and the people he’s associated with, you know, and no one can deny his humanity, his worth, his value. You respect that his family even admires him even though there’s a recognition of some differences; we’re not sure how pronounced they are at that point. But the “other,” in this case a young gay man, turns out to be someone you can’t ignore, dismiss, and so forth. So the people brutalizing him and other people he encounters in the army, you know, there’s something really insanely wrong with these so-called normal white people. 

Well, we should remember–because we throw around the word “fascism.” But you know, in Nazi Germany for example, homosexuals were a prime target, because they were a denial of this idea of whiteness as ultimately masculine, ultimately, you know, male hegemony of the most brutal kind. It was always associated with power, being able to win wars, being able to exploit other people, to conquer them. And in your movie–I mean, it’s so powerful just to see the rare cameo, almost, appearances of Black people. But they are just regarded as filth, as some–you know, in the street, and you can throw things at them and destroy them, and so forth.

And really, this is a movie about whiteness and fascism. And everybody should [remember] that while this was going on in South Africa, remember, we were segregated in the United States. The U.S. Armed Forces were segregated racially in World War II. We didn’t desegregate, beginning with the Navy, until 1947. And so for people in South Africa–I remember this, because I would interview people later during this big struggle and everything, when I was working for the L.A. Times and others, when this was still very much a hot issue. And people from South Africa who were justifying the system would point to the American experience. They would actually say, you’re our model. What are you talking about? You also have a Christian-backed, white supremacy that has controlled your Congress, you know, until one of those people in the South, Lyndon Johnson, actually dared break with it. That’s very late in the day.

So really–and then you mentioned mixed race, which is something else. We forget how important the delineation of race was, and you know, somebody like Archbishop Tutu and so forth was mixed race. For people who don’t know this history, position your own family in this.

OH: In the context.

RS: Yeah.

OH: Ah, so, in South Africa, you know, it’s a tricky situation because in fact a lot of terminology of how we self-identify, in terms of like the labels, the racial labels that are used even today–Black, white–the label that is used to describe my race is the word “colored.” And in the South African context, colored people as a race, we are a longstanding, you know, element of the South African racial dynamic. And we are the product of 300 years of racial intersection between white Europeans who came to South Africa to start a trading port on their way to the East, and then those Dutch trading ships were coming back from the East and stopping in what now is Cape Town, bringing slaves with them and bringing people with them who ultimately would stay in Cape Town. So Cape Town became this port city, this port town where there was the mix of the indigenous people, which were sub-Saharan African people–the indigenous African, sub-Saharan African people–and white people, and people from Southeast Asia. 

And so over the course of 300 years of hanging around, you have me–which is somebody who is the product of, you know, just generation on generation of mixing. And my parents are the same, you know, a collection of mixing. And it would be fascinating to kind of do an examination of my genetics, because I imagine it would be quite vast. But you know, my surname is Hermanus, and in the way that we work these things out, you know, Hermanus is also a town in South Africa. And that is a coastal town very close to Cape Town. And you have the assumption that for colored people, mixed-race people like myself, your last name is always an indicator in some senses of your background. Because it would imply, in my case for example it would imply that my heritage is the heritage of people who were slaves of the original owners who started that town. Because that town would originally have been a farm, and so that town was named after the owner of the farm, who was probably Mr. Hermanus, or Hermanus. And so our name is not, we’re not family members of that man; we were just ex-property of that man. 

And then you’ve got other colored South Africans whose last names are the months of the year. And you know that if you are a Mr. January or a Mr. February or a Mrs. March, that it implies it’s the month that you arrived from Southeast Asia. And they would just label, it became that month, those slaves were just given the same last name. And so it’s a really fascinating racial history. But ultimately, its root is always in some kind of colonization, and some kind of second-class citizenship. 

RS: Well, not just some kind of colonization. It becomes a disguise for the major colonializing, imperialistic experiment of modern world history. Whiteness becomes the defining characteristic. I was just curious, would you have been recruited into the military at the age of 16?

OH: No. No, so you would only go to the military if you were absolutely white. Only the whitest of the white. 

RS: OK, so I’ve just learned something here. And this has got to remind people in the United States, because there’s a conceit that we’ve had our imperfections but, you know, once we turned against South Africa–well, they’re the bad people. But the fact is, we were part of the same drama. And how do you explain in a great war for democracy, in World War II, we have a racially segregated armed forces? And even in our major pastime, baseball, you know, you’re segregated. OK, why–we point the finger at South Africa, but why was baseball, while we’re fighting this war for democracy, our own national pastime, segregated? And then where do the [mixed-race people come] in? After all, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was the main civil rights organization in the United States. Well, how far did that go? Could you be Latino and somewhat darker and be in baseball? Could you pass? 

And it goes back to the founders here. And no wonder someone like William Buckley was, let’s give him some credit, a bit confused about racism and not–I mean, he would always claim he wasn’t a racist. So let’s just say he was deeply confused, as were many American conservatives. Because after all, you had this whiteness written into our Constitution, and yet one of the, you know, really the inspirer of the whole thing, Thomas Jefferson, we know, and he was not the exception, was a producer of mixed-race people himself. And exploited people in the most extreme way.

I’m not trying to hijack this film for some other agenda, which I’m wary I can do. I want to make the point this is–yes, it’s poignant, incredibly; it’s the most powerful movie about being homosexual in a dominant, masculine society that I’ve ever seen. You know, and at first I resented it–I said are we getting off the train here, are we stopping with the war, when are we going to get to the conventional scenes of reconciliation and what happens–no. That’s why I use this idea as a director, a brilliant director, of this line you’ve got out there, and then it goes around the neck of white arrogance. And you know, at the end, you’ve cut the head off. Because you cannot watch this movie and still have any kind of excuse, rationalization, for whiteness–for whiteness as an ideology. It’s a killer, you know. And yes, it kills as it did in Germany, as it did in much of America; it kills homosexuals whether they’re white or Black or mixed-race.

But the power of this film–and again, I don’t want to hijack it. But it seems to me the theme is a universal one, and very current to the moment–very current to the moment. That whiteness as an ideology is the great killer, really–that’s not what you say in your movie, but I’m taking from it–really the great killer of the modern experience. After all, what was Nazism? And even to some–the Nazis tried to make the Slavs, you know, the Russians and everything, lesser. But there’s plenty of racism among the Slavs, which we see coming out, using their whiteness as opposed to others, you know.

OH: I think there are great nuances to this as well, you know. The act of othering, the process of othering–which you know, we explore in Moffie, the othering in Moffie is not just on the racial level but of course the level of homosexuality, or moffies. You know, the idea of a moffie is another kind of “other,” of the lesser man, and that one is kept within the context of whiteness. You know, othering as an act of definition, as an act of drawing a line in the sand, is also part of how, historically, we’ve created these ideas of superiority, these ideas of having a race be identified as having inherent privilege. It’s because there is–it’s an idea at the center of it. What I found interesting about making a movie with a collection of young, white men is that they arrived at that army space not fully aware that this was not just going to be them being militarized, but it was going to be their indoctrination into whiteness. That they had no real choice in the matter; they had to subscribe. It was forced upon them, and I tried to show, hopefully, that different members of this platoon of men are having a reaction to it in different ways. Because it’s ultimately–the opportunity to identify and define themselves on their own terms is being denied to them, whether they are gay or not. 

RS: So, what’s going to happen with this film? It’s opening–and you know, I just hope it doesn’t get–not that homophobia isn’t a worldwide killer, and still is. This is not a battle that’s over; people are being killed, you know, on a regular basis for being gay. And so I’m not going to deny the power of this film to, you know, smash some notion of any kind of innocence or rationality to this. 

It’s a powerful–I mean, you know, I want to just make a tribute to you as a filmmaker. My wife brought it up this morning, because we were watching this film, and god, what a way to spend an evening. But it is actually, you know, it’s not hard to take; it’s not a hard film. You actually, I hate to say it, it’s not a date film, but it’s actually a film that moves; you’re a brilliant filmmaker, and it’s real human beings, and you engage with them and you care about them. And I’m not going to be a spoiler here and talk about how the love interest ends. You know, but it’s complex as a work of art, and it’s brilliant. OK, I’ll just put it out there. 

But you know, I avoided it, frankly. I don’t know if I would have gone. I’m educated on this subject, and is this how I want to spend an evening. I’m urging people to spend the evening, because the themes are compelling and universal. So let me give a big plug for this. And this morning when I woke up, my wife said you know what, that’s the best movie I ever saw about war. The best.

OH: Wow.

RS: And we know–you know, we know Oliver Stone, he’s made some really good ones–

OH: [Laughs] He has, yes. 

RS: –Born on the Fourth of July, and we know a lot of people in this business; I probably have seen every anti-war movie. And I said, what? That’s not what it’s really about. And she said, yes it is. And my wife used to be a big editor of the L.A. Times, associate editor, and has covered Hollywood and everything. And she said, that is what this is. Aside from everything else, this is really the most powerful anti-war movie. Because you see not what it does to what are supposed to be officially “the others,” the people in Angola, you know, who you’re fighting or so forth–no. What it’s supposed to be, really, when you just look at this central character, the best of yours, you know, and well-intentioned, and part of your culture, and you will destroy anyone who gets in the way of your model of superiority, even in this respect where he’s in the closet. 

And he’s quite willing to go along with the scam. You know, he even brings, what, a pornographic, heterosexual magazine that his father gives him, you know, as cover, and that he can masturbate with the best of them to images of women and so forth. You know–yet, that won’t work. Because what you’re really–your justification for dominance, internationally, politically, everything else, is your superiority. And that superiority has to be–you can’t have kinks in it, you can’t be antihuman about people. They have to be one way. That’s why homosexuals were the enemy of Hitler. Because the German, blond–even though Hitler didn’t look at all like that ideal thing–has to be a certain way. And he can’t be, what do you say, feminized in any way, can’t be different in any way. 

And so this movie is really about why stamping out difference–you know, homogenizing everything–is the key to what we really speak about when we speak about fascism. And it transcends economic systems, it transcends all sorts of things, because it really gets at defining the human being as nothing more than a seeker for power and self-aggrandizement. That’s really what one emerges–because those other people in your film that you film with, they’re also people, right? What the hell are they thinking when this is going on? Why are they going along with being brutalized in this way? So talk just a little bit about the power of this film, minute after minute, as you describe what is basically a process of brainwashing of a generation of white South Africans.

OH: Yeah, it was brought up on them, you know. It was the–that was the system, a million–the statistic is that a million boys went into that conscription over the course of I think a decade, just over a decade. And it was this process, this machine, this factory of breaking them down and building them up in this ideology that you’re talking about, which has its roots in so many other kinds of dangerous ideologies. And I think that the apartheid government famously took reference from other fascist movements, of course, in terms of how it went about setting up its systems and its structures to create this generation. 

And I think the other interesting thing to point out is that this is a film about men who are alive and well today. This movie is, you know, the men who went into the army at this time are all the fathers of our actors. And so they’re living in a different country, they’re living in post-apartheid South Africa, but their formative time as men, their identity, their racial politics, their attitudes were formed in this way. But they’re living in the world today, they’re living in our current society. And so there’s also the impact of what you’re talking about, the impact of that brainwash, the impact of that utter, like, devastation and overpowering of their individuality, that they are not having to, you know, demilitarize and deactivate and untangle. 

And we never had a–the nature of the end of apartheid was that it ended, that army was obliterated, Namibia became its own country, Nelson Mandela became the president, we changed our constitution; it all happened within the course of four to five years. And these men, that army only really stopped in 1992; Mandela became the president in ’94, and the constitution was ratified in ’95. And those men, all those men, you know, the ones that had gone in the seventies, all through the eighties, those men had to hold their breath, do nothing, say nothing. There was no process for them to be able to articulate their trauma, or to ever sort of have a moment to understand where they were, what they were, and where they were going. 

And you know, I think that’s been one of the biggest impacts of Moffie in South Africa, has been, you know, a movie being made in 2020 and showing in 2021 about their lives, where they can actually exhale, all these men who have had to never fully acknowledge or interrogate or have a reflection of all of that brainwashing. 

RS: Yeah, brainwashing is critical here. And it’s interesting, I looked at some of the comments of some of these people who were in the military then, and they nitpicked the film–oh, we wouldn’t have had the uniform on then, or–

OH: [Laughs]

RS: –we wouldn’t have been in the morning, we would have been in the afternoon. Wait a minute, you’re talking about being involved in a Nazi experiment. 

OH: That’s the interesting thing, you know, that was the interesting thing. They–you know, when you show something for what it was, what it really was, you know, it’s an interrogation and it’s in conflict with somebody’s personal attitude. Because the person that went through it, they don’t want to see it that way, often, because it brings up too many other things. And I found that quite fascinating with the reaction of these hard-wired militants who saw the film. Because they could only register it on a level where they were going, the beret would have been slightly skewed and at more of a slant. They could only really register it–I did these town hall kind of Q&As when I was taking the film around South Africa before COVID, and I was being faced with these men who were just very affronted by me problematizing what they’ve never–and some of them, not all of them–but some of them, they’ve never wanted to interrogate that part of themselves. They don’t want to be made to feel that they committed, you know, atrocities, racial and murderous atrocities. They want to believe that what they were fighting for was good; they want to believe they were on the right side of history. And so there were many interactions that I had where I realized that this film was operating on a level where it was unnerving a lot of men; it was creating a real sense of uncertainty in their own self-perception and self-identification. 

RS: You know, I could go on really long–I just got a note from your producer [Laughter] that we’re going to have to wrap this up. But I want–I want to go on just a few minutes more to pick up on what you just said, which is the denial and not interrogating it. Because that’s what’s going on in much of the world, with different social systems where you have a status quo that is not working. And that’s what happened in South Africa. It took international musicians and celebrities and so forth to wake it up, that if you’re going to stay racist in that way, you’re going to be an isolated society, and you’re going to suffer economically. In South Africa, that really was the punch. You ain’t getting the concerts, you know, you’re not getting the contracts, tourists are not coming, and your passport is not going to be accepted everywhere, and you’re going to be pariahs. And that’s what got the attention. It wasn’t human decency that got the attention of the white population, right? It was economic–

OH: No, absolutely, it was economic sanctions. It was economic pressure, it was being cut off from the world in the terms that mattered to the apartheid government, and actually mattered to the other parts of the world, which was money. That was the reason.

RS: Right. And that is, you know, in a way–I’m bringing it back to the United States, and an American audience–this is the great denial in the United States. First of all there was the denial that slavery was a horrible experiment, believe it or not. But you go back and look at the founders, they actually thought they were doing something wonderful by putting in Blacks as less than 100% of a person in the Constitution. They could rationalize it a million different ways. And everybody forgets, our nation was founded by people who were quite idealistic in many ways, and yet could rationalize the most extreme barbarism, which is slavery. You know, it doesn’t get any worse than that; you have full right to destroy, in every which way, these other human beings by virtue of their color. 

And we have it to this day, you know. And I just kept thinking of this when you were talking of Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali. About what history, you know, and Muhammad Ali had the nerve to say I don’t want the slaveowner’s–when you were talking about your own history–the slaveowner’s name, I’m going to change it, I’m not Cassius Clay, I’m going to be Muhammad Ali. I’m going to pick a religion that whites in America are most alienated from, because the Christian church actually embraced segregation in the South. Has also embraced Black people in the Black Christian church, but in the main, went along. 

And this, again, I bring up Germany and people say, why are you bringing up Germany. It happens half my family is from Germany; my father was from Germany. And it’s a question I’ve had to raise ever since I was a little kid: how did this otherwise enlightened country of Beethoven and great science and great education go along with the most extreme barbarism in modern history? And I know there was a lot of echo of Germany in South Africa, and there was in the American South, you know. And other things like homophobia and anti-Semitism, they all play in to that narrative.

And the power of your film is it does not let people escape, OK. Because in fact, how could you do this to a person who’s–now, at least in Los Angeles, you’d say wow, how could they do that just because somebody’s homosexual? You know–well, we killed people in America for being homosexual. But the larger point is the dehumanization of anyone that is convenient to your narrative and your grab for power. 

And what had been constructed–I’ll let you end this–but what had been constructed in South Africa, and in Rhodesia, was a vision of Africa that was grotesque, because it was going to be white and white-controlled, and was admired. And we’ve slipped around this thing, but I remember talking to William Buckley, maybe no longer so famous, but the father of American conservatism in a way. And there’s echoes of William Buckley now in groups in the United States that are for Trump, and what have you. 

What is basic to it is the uniqueness and inevitable innocence of white masculinity. That it is just what God intended. Yes, you’ll kill people. Yes, you’ll be a hunter. Yes, you’ll be brutal. Yes, you’ll beat up women. Yes, you’ll be a misogynist in every respect. Yes, yes, yes, yes–but you’re the best hope for civilization. And you came up against it, and you’re coming up against it in this movie. You don’t leave any room for rationalization for the people who went along. Other than they wanted to be with power, and it was convenient because they had the white skin; they were not mixed. And that with the exception of a few people who were homosexual and were not given that choice–they were outed–everyone else in your film went along. Went along.

OH: Absolutely. And–

RS: And this was true of most of the German population and true of most of the American South: the white people went along. 

OH: We have to ask that question about why, you know. And I think that was what fascinated me in wanting to tell this story and make the film, was just being outside of that whiteness–not being white, not having that inherent privilege or that inherent status or that inherent value that is placed upon white men in all parts of the world. There was the desire for myself personally to explore that, interrogate it, to unearth it in a way. 

And the brutality is a big part of it. You know, concentration camps were invented in South Africa. They were used in the Boer War. And the country’s, you know, barbarism, and the viciousness of the treatment of “other” is sort of majorly highlighted in South African history. And for me, it’s existential to me, but I have to kind of understand myself; I have to understand my own heritage, and this film is personal to me in that way. Understanding how my relationship with whiteness is such a major part of my own self-identification. And by making this film, you know, my hope was to deep-dive into that. 

And I must be honest, I really enjoyed the way that you have interpreted the film, and I really appreciate it. Because I think it’s definitely a layer of the film that has really been identified, and I feel like you have definitely seen it in a way that I greatly admire. 

RS: Well, let me just put one little footnote on that. Because someone will say, well that was then, and why are we revisiting, and so forth. You know, and there is even a conceit now, oh, the whole homophobia is over, because in certain parts of the United States you can–oh, and you can even run for president, and so forth. When I looked at your film I kept thinking, where are the Black homosexuals? Where are the mixed-race homosexuals? And as brutal–maybe I’m wrong here, but it would seem to me, as brutal as the treatment you describe, I can only imagine what it was like to be a Black person.

OH: Yeah. And still to this day–and still to this day, I think, being a Black person who’s gay is–you are far, far more vulnerable than being a white person who’s gay, especially in South Africa. Especially if you’re a Black woman. Race has a huge impact in terms of the treatment of the LGBTQI+ community in terms of social services and social accesses. And you know, my attitude with the racial relationships in Moffie was about positioning the audience entirely in the head space of white South Africa. So you only have this viewpoint of Black people through that head space, so all of the Black characters in Moffie are victims of abuse or suffering or violence or shaming or interrogation or humiliation. It’s in a very intent perspective that I wanted to have, a very particular, you know, lens through which I wanted you to see how these young men perceive the world around them.

RS: Last word. Because the word moffie, the title–and I don’t even know if I’m allowed on NPR now to say “fag,” but that’s the South African equivalent. And I remember when I was a kid, one of my two or three closest friends was referred to by other kids as “Mel the fag.” And he ended up killing himself, jumping out of the window…sorry, of his mother’s apartment. And people would say, well, what’s wrong with that word? I mean, it’s not that bad; it’s like a cigarette, fag. OK. And so I just want to end: tell me about the word moffie. Because some people would say, well, it only is certain behavior, and it could be applied to others–this movie, this is Moffie, to remind people. It’s a movie you got to go see today on this broadcast. And tell us just the last, to end that, the significance of that word. Because it could be hidden, as many of these words–well, it’s just a word, or behind the word. But it carried a death sentence.

OH: It did, and it still does. The word is, it’s a weapon. It’s an Afrikaans-language word that is used to shame boys and men. And we tried to, you know, point that out quite clearly in the film, not just by its title but by certain scenes in the film showing the impact of that word. And its prevalence is still very much, still very great today. It’s a word that I would never personally use, I would never use it in my normal day-to-day language and speaking and interaction with other people. It’s a derogatory term that is problematic, and it’s kind of outlawed in South Africa, to be honest. 

And its–what it does, its function, is to dehumanize. And you’re right, people can, you know, attach greater or lesser meaning to it. But any person who–particularly if you’re gay and you’re young and you’re still, you know, a teenager or a young boy or girl, you know, that word is a word that you hide from. It’s a word that if it gets used in your direction, gets used against you, it will be a cause, it will be a reason for you to repress and to restrict yourself, and to diminish yourself. 

And so, you know, a word like moffie still has to be utterly policed in South Africa, because it still runs the risk of, as the example you gave, it runs the risk of ruining people’s lives and ending their lives.

RS: So we’ll end on that, but you have to use the word to recommend the film to friends.

OH: [Laughs]

RS: Moffie. It’s opening today in the United States. And I would–stop listening to this show if you don’t go watch this movie, because what’s the whole point about having these conversations. I mean, I just think–you will be surprised. It’s not depressing, it’s life-affirming. It is life-affirming, and the survival of this young man–I’ll give away that, he doesn’t die at the end, he actually is liberated at the end to pursue who he is, and so forth. I don’t want to ruin the movie by having a cheerful ending, but it does, so it’s not a bummer. And you don’t know everything about the subject. That’s another excuse for not watching movies. And it’s not only–even if it was only about being gay, that would be fine, but it’s not, it’s universal in its concerns and themes, and it’s spot-on to what ails the United States now around this word, “whiteness.” Whiteness, whiteness, whiteness–which is the bane of our political life right now, and you’d be an idiot to deny it. 

And so I want to thank you, you know, Oliver Hermanus. I know a lot more about your name than when we started this. And thanks for taking the time to do this. Christopher Ho, who’s our person who’s going to post this at KCRW, the I think quite terrific NPR station, and hopefully other NPR stations around the country. I want to thank Joshua Scheer, our executive producer. Natasha Hakimi Zapata, who will do the [introduction]. Lucy Berbeo who will do the transcription, Natasha does the intro. 

And I want to have a particular shout-out to some name you might come across, the JWK Foundation, which in the name of Jean Stein, a terrific American editor, writer, public persona, helped provide funding for this. And the reason I want to mention Jean Stein is I believe I met Nelson Mandela through Jean Stein. Jean Stein was one of those New York liberals, you know, that we deride so often, but she was way ahead–decades ahead on being concerned about what was happening in South Africa and what was happening in the American South. So this is a program, this particular program, I think, honors Jean Stein, the author of Edie and other important books, in a very special way. Thank you, and see you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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