It’s interesting, isn’t it? The fact that we might not like one another, but in suffering together, there’s this connection.
It’s South Africa, 1981. The white minority governs the country through legislated racial segregation. Military operations have commenced on its border with Soviet-backed Angola to stop the spread of communism. All late-teenage, white Afrikaner men are conscripted for compulsory military service and trained to defend the Apartheid regime. Given the backdrop, there are more than enough prejudices to go around in Oliver Hermanus’ towering fourth feature, Moffie. It’s a very close approximation of hell: an era in which lockstep conformity was state-policed and military service helped inculcate horrifically illiberal values, and where discovered transgressions would provoke the most extreme consequences. Moffie marks the first great picture of 2021.
Hermanus and co-writer Jack Sidney’s screenplay, which was loosely adapted from André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiography of the same title—the still-unclaimed word for “faggot” in Afrikaans—follows Nicholas van der Swart (newcomer Kai Luke Brümmer), a gay, white South African who must endure two-year national service: a grisly basic training followed by a “border tour” where recruits move upcountry to engage the enemy in a real shooting war, which will sober them with their first taste of death in combat. What ensues is a literal assault course of abuse, humiliation, and physical exhaustion under the sweltering sun in a dusty hellhole of thrown-together barracks. Any boy who briefly wavers or steps out of line—or, in one case, is shown to have the faintest scar of an ear piercing— is labeled “moffie” and weeded out for special torture because, here, no great failing could be imagined of men. This means that some parts of Nicholas is hiding at all times, including from himself. But when a muted, mutual understanding flickers between him and fellow recruit, Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), who offers much-needed tenderness that can’t be found anywhere else, it becomes impossible for Nicholas to keep his head down entirely for long.
Anthem reached out to Brümmer in Cape Town to discuss his stunning, first starring role.
Moffie hits select theaters and on digital and VOD platforms on April 9.
Hi, Kai. Where are you based these days? Are you calling from London?
I’m in South Africa. I’m based between the two, but I’m in Cape Town, my hometown.
What’s the current COVID situation like in Cape Town? It’s difficult to keep track of all the different waves now, and the inoculations and whatnot, around the world.
We’re slowly moving forward. We’re slowly vaccinating the population and trying to be as careful as we possibly can. It’s definitely a lot better than it was at the beginning of last year.
And is that where you’ve spent the majority of your life?
Yes, this is where I grew up. But my grandfather on my mom’s side is British.
Speaking of your mother, it was interesting to find out that she has a film background.
Originally, she wanted to become an actress, but she studied teaching and taught drama. When I was about seven, eight years old, she converted a helicopter hanger into a community-based theatre and education center for drama. Then she went back to study film when I was about 13.
That’s impressive. Is that how your eyes were first opened to filmmaking—through her?
I think it was a very small taste because I was so young. But once I knew that I wanted to go into film, it was very vital to my mom that I get classical training so I went and did four years of theatre and got a performance BA [at the University of Cape Town]. Then I worked in theatre for awhile. I also did little bits in different films, but Moffie was kind of my first lead role.
You’re perfect in this role, and what a movie to breakout with. That’s really rare, you know?
I’m so aware of how lucky I am to have gotten the role and to have worked with Oliver [Harmanus] and Eric [Abraham, producer] and Jack [Sidey] in the world that they created for us. It was kind of mind-blowing and surreal for me to get this opportunity.
So how did this come to you?
I wish I had a more interesting story. [laughs] I got it through my agent. The first time I read [the script], I thought, “This is my character.” But when I went in to audition, I got a callback for a different character. By the end of it, I had done 11 auditions and five or six chemistry reads in the span of a year and a half. Then I eventually got the role of Nicholas. It was a long one.
That must’ve been such a relief.
You know what it was? It was a moment of being like, “Oh my gosh, I got it!” and then it’s like, “Oh my gosh. What am I gonna do? How am I gonna do this?” [laughs] I think every actor has those moments of absolute celebration and then absolute dread about the thought of pulling off something like this.
Oliver has compared your discovery to “finding our Helen of Troy.”
[laughs] I don’t know if I can compare myself to Helen of Troy. Those are Oliver’s words.
Moffie is an adaptation and there is also the history that you were already familiar with about South Africa being from there. There is a wealth of information. Where do you start?
With the preparation, I started three or four months before we started shooting: meeting with Oliver two to three times a week, just kind of talking about the character, other films, and creating a short timeline. The history was familiar to me because we study it in school, but my dad had actually been to the army—I think three or four years after Nicholas went—so he became my greatest resource. He hadn’t spoken about the army before so it was both this wonderful resource and, at the same time, a complete insight into my dad and his generation that I hadn’t had before.
I think that’s fairly common with war stories, but it’s not something to generalize obviously. To this day, my grandmother never talks about The Korean War.
Yeah, I was curious, too. I think a lot of men from my dad’s generation—I can’t say all—don’t talk about it for various reasons, but one of them being the shame behind it. It’s the fact that we’ve moved into a democratic South Africa, but with this history where we were essentially fighting for the bad side. For instance, I come from a mixed-raced family. I have an adoptive black brother so the politics behind that have become complicated. I think there is this shame in that generation that they don’t want to talk about. So it’s really interesting for me to go into this world. It feels so far from me, but it’s still a world that shaped the one I’m currently in.
Have you gotten the chance to watch Moffie with your family?
I did. I think it was really meaningful for my dad. For my mom, the same. But with my dad, we discussed the actual violence. There’s that scene on the train where vomit is thrown at the black older man standing there [on the platform]. My dad said, “It could’ve been even more violent back in the day.” He was like, “The racism and the indoctrination and turning these young men, essentially, into nerve endings—a pulsating trigger finger—was pretty accurate.”
It was my toughest scene to shoot.
Was your father also aware of Ward 22 and how homosexuality was dealt with in the army?
That was something I was curious about. It hadn’t occurred in his unit, and my father had gone to the same unit my character is sent to on the border. My mom actually met my dad post-army and she always talked about walking down a promenade on the beachfront one time when a car backfired. She looked to her left and my father was lying on the ground. That’s the kind of story that really evokes in me the torment that he experienced during that time. But in terms of the queer narrative, he knew about it, but it wasn’t something that was widely spoken about. It’s repressed.
You’ve previously described making a film set in the military as “a joint creation and a joint suffering.” This ensemble is unique in that it was made up of trained actors, non-trained actors, untrained actors, and high school students. You all went through bootcamp together and weeks of rehearsals even prior to shooting. It has those same rite-of-passage qualities.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? How we as human beings work. The fact that we might not like one another, but in suffering together, there’s this connection. I think that’s what was interesting about the character of Nicholas. He hated being taken away from his family, but in the army’s weird toxic space, he finds this very disjointed family. That’s not to say my fellow actors are disjointed at all. [laughs] They were the most wonderful humans and absolutely supportive. What was kind of interesting is that, during the whole shoot, there wasn’t a blooper take at all. There was not one instance where one of us had to stop or forgot our lines or anything like that. Everyone was just so immersed in the process that, even when things didn’t go according to plan, we just went with it and it became this really organic process. That only happens when people trust one another. There was a great sense of trust between us.
There’s this brief scene in the movie where Dylan [played by Ryan de Villiers] is etching the phrase “even birds are chained to the sky” on the back of a church pew. It’s such a small detail, but I found that so sad and beautiful at the same time. What did you make of it?
If I’m not mistaken, and I may be, I believe it’s a Bob Dylan quote. For my character, Bob Dylan was a musician he loved and music that was passed down from his father so there was this real connection to that. It also added fuel to the fire, that Dylan and Nicholas understood each other.
What you just said gives their attraction a specificity that I didn’t know or expected.
Yeah. What’s exciting about making this about Dylan is that he sees the world differently to anyone else that Nicholas has ever engaged with. I think that line puts it beautifully.
Speaking of the other Dylan—Bob Dylan—I suspect that music was an important ingredient in your creative process. I saw some behind the scenes footage of you on set where you had your headphones in between takes.
I always create playlists to kind of space out the different changes in the film or in the story because, when you shoot so out of order, sometimes it’s a little bit difficult to locate yourself. I find music that I feel has a similar tone to the scenes that I’m inhabiting. For Moffie, I created 21 playlists or something like that for the different changes. I would pop my headphones in and the music would help me locate myself in the story. There was also a mixture of music that Oliver and I decided Nicholas listened to.
This movie is incredibly tactile as well. The characters’ masculinity is up for scrutiny at every turn, often in their nakedness and how they carry themselves. I also know you have a background in ballet and acrobatics, and you’ve spoken before about the influence of Butoh in your portrayal of Nicholas. Did all of that just make you hyperaware of the skin you’re in?
This is going to sound kind of vapid, but the truth of the matter is that Nicholas needed to look a certain way. He needed to look like maybe he wouldn’t be able to cope with the physical activity in the army. When I originally auditioned for the film, I was a bit larger because I used the gym a fair amount. So it became a process of actually losing muscle and looking thinner, looking like someone who isn’t frequenting the gym. By the end of it, I think I had lost 11 kgs or something like that. I suppose the body for me is always such an important thing because I need to feel the character. I need to be able to feel his positioning and where he carries tension. Butoh is always a wonderful way to find out what this character is filled with at a particular time.
Like many other places, South Africa has a complicated history that can be quite confronting. What has the response to the film been like from audiences over there?
You know, it’s been interesting. We’ve had people come up to us to say how much they loved the film and how grateful they are that the film is coming out with a clear voice that adds to the lineage of stories we’ve been telling for awhile. Then on the other side, we’ve also had the complete opposite, homophobic response. Hatred. But by and large, I can say that I’ve experienced a real embrace of the film from the South African audience.
What can we expect from you moving forward?
I was supposed to move to the UK last year and then COVID hit. So I’m now finishing up a project here at the end of June and moving over to the UK to see if I can make a mark internationally.
You have so much promise. I’m really looking forward to seeing your star rise.
You’re making me blush. [laughs] Thank you so much.