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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter


by writer/director Oliver Hermanus

In early July 2015 I received an email from a young British producer who was travelling to South Africa from London to talk about a book his company had acquired the rights to—Moffie.

We met for lunch and he brought up the book and his interest in it. I had not read it but he soon sent me a copy which I read over the course of a few weeks. The book—set during the state of emergency in the 1980s South Africa, when Apartheid was beginning to crumble—was tonally effective. It portrayed the horror of being brainwashed as part of the state sanctioned hate machine—the South African Defence Force.

I am a coloured South African. I know that the word ‘coloured’ to American ears is derogatory. Yet in South Africa we have white, black and coloured people. These racial terms are a product of the colonial past—white used to be ‘European’ and everyone else, coloured or black was ‘non-European.’ Briefly, the history of my race is that I am the product of 300 years of racial integration and interlocking that is the genesis of South Africa as a country. Ever since the Dutch created Cape Town as their trade port on their way to the far east. My heritage, like most coloured South Africans, is a mix of European, indigenous sub Saharan African, Middle Eastern and Asian influence. Under Apartheid coloured South Africans were also marginalised and every generation before mine lived their lives as second class citizens with limited access to education, mobility and basic human rights. Reading Moffie, as a gay, coloured South African in 2015, I was aware that I was being asked to empathise with white teenage boys during Apartheid. And this was a challenge. In fact at first I felt that I could not make this film because I thought ‘does the world need another film about the plight of white men?’

But there was something about Moffie I could not let go of. The more I thought on it, the more I came to find my place in it. I was born in 1983, the year our film is set. I am racially and culturally outside of the world I was looking into. And I found that this perspective was deeply affecting to me. I came to realise that I could make this film because this film is not simply about white teenage boys, it’s about shame and indoctrination. In South Africa the word ‘moffie’ is a slur. It is a weapon of shame and it is culturally and socially unacceptable to use. Having this word as the title of a book and film is very provocative. It’s an act of re-appropriating and denuclearising this weapon.

But in order to make Moffie, I had to put some of myself in it. We spent two years writing this script, tailoring it to be a film that I could connect with as a filmmaker. In the very middle of the film is a key scene that is lifted from my own childhood; the placing, the people—their race etc, might be different but the moment is connective and similar to my own. And so, in many ways, what started out as a book and idea that felt so distant and foreign to me, turned into Moffie—a deeply personal film.

Something we can all relate to is being told that who we are is not acceptable. That we must confirm, suppress or deny ourselves in order to fit in or survive. In an attempt to shift this paradigm, change this attitude, we have made Moffie.

I was taught that a good film provides no answers, instead it endeavours to pose a worthy and meaningful question—a provocation to the audience. It is in this spirit that I am so pleased to share Moffie with all of you.

Posted March 23, 2021

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