That sexual and domestic violence are severe problems in all South African society should not come as a shock to any moviegoer walking into Meg Rickards's new feature film, Tess. Rickards doesn't aim only to inform us of this fact, but to evoke in us the rage and the pain that attend the victims of violence, and she hopes that that common sympathy in audiences can help turn the tide against a culture of rape. Her film is adapted from the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren, about the sex worker Tess who, in the course of a career on the beach front of Muizenberg, unexpectedly falls pregnant. Until now, Tess (Christia Visser) has been masking her deep psychological pain with an impenetrable stone-cold face, and numbing it with a codeine addiction.
Rickards films, as if forcing both herself and the audience to watch without flinching, the wearying sexual encounters Tess undergoes, her stressful living circumstances, the physical toll taken by a drug addiction, and the crushing spectacle of a schoolgirl's abortion. There's no aspect of a sex worker's life that she finds too unseemly to put up on the screen; in fact, she films these scenes and scenarios precisely to show those grimy specifics – one even depicts Tess's brutal rape by an unrelenting John. There's also brief nudity later on, to highlight the degradation in Tess's work.
But there are many finer, potentially more revealing, almost certainly less known particulars of Tess's life that Rickards doesn't show. Why did Tess become a sex worker in the first place? What other options were available to her? How does she get by when her broken psyche and sunken self-esteem bring her to charge so little for sex? Why doesn't she posses the hard-won wisdom of other prostitutes and collect her money up front? Does she never use birth control? If not, why not? Has she had pregnancy scares before? Has she actually fallen pregnant before? If so, what was her reaction? How did she deal with it? Why did she take no measures to prevent it in future? What is her psychological reaction to the violence she endures?
This is the latent, unrealised, likely more revelatory story that Rickards doesn't offer. Nearly everyone seeing the film will already know that prostitutes undergo a large number of sexual encounters, many of which are highly unpleasant for them; they know that pregnancy is a heightened risk; they know that abortions can be horrifyingly traumatic procedures; they know that men can turn with brutal violence on women and that prostitutes and other poor women are particularly vulnerable; and they know the ignominy of the profession and the despair anyone could fall into when faced with such abject hopelessness. What Rickards is missing is the fully imagined world of the sex worker; what she gives is a competent illustration of a script, conceived with what seems like an unnecessary fidlity to its source material (which I haven't read), that contains scenes from a sex worker's life but doesn't say very much about that life or let us in on the subjective experience of it.
(Mild spoiler alert) Brief flashbacks reveal, through blunt psychologising, the root of Tess's pain and isolation, why she obsessively cleans her underwear, and why the recurring motif of birds echoes, for her, an assault and debasement. Child abuse, woefully, is just as widespread and even more damaging a problem in South Africa than gender-based violence, and an ever-present outrage, brewing in the subconscious of all artists aware of the facts, seems to be breaking forth into their work, which accounts for the child rape we've seen portrayed over the last few years in films such as Dis Ek, Anna, Noem My Skollie, and now Tess.
The crawl back to connecting with people is brought about by Tess's interactions with the warmhearted people around her, both offering and in need of support. Her neighbour, Bonita, and her daughter move in with Tess for a brief period while Bonita's boyfriend Merrick slings about threats, that turn into attempts, to rape and kill either or both of them. Another neighbour, the Congolese immigrant Madeleine, recruits Tess to sew outfits for local dancers, and offers motherly comfort. A john who hires her in the hope she can cure his impotence opens up to her about his childlessness and his wife's deep need for children. All around, it's mothers who tend to Tess and bring her to the point where she can confront the burning resentments she harbours towards her own mother, to whom both the book and film's narration is addressed.
I surmise that Rickards means to tell a story to which a broad cross-section of South African women can relate, and so the portrait of Tess is not a highly individual one. The performances are merely competent, carrying out the action in the script and speaking the lines, but they're truncated; the characters are devised to fit comfortably into the story's schema, and the edges are neatly cut and shaven, rather than opened up for the actor's personalities and personal styles to spill out and come to life. They aren't quite placed in a tangible time and place either; Farren's script and Rickards's camera don't move out into the surrounds to capture the wider sociopolitical context, except for the attractive establishing shots of the back of Devil's Peak or of the waves coming into False Bay. A large proportion of the shots are of Visser's face, in which Rickards locates little visual expression of an unspoken inner life.
Hopefully many South Africans will go see Tess and support the local industry, as well as Rickards's film-making career – Tess is her first fictional work; she'd previously made a documentary called 1994: The Bloody Miracle. No doubt her success at the Durban International Film Festival – where Tess won the awards for best South African feature, best actress for Visser, and best editing – has already helped her gain footing in the industry, and she may find greater freedom and opportunity for personal artistic expression in her next work. There is clearly no shortage of stories for South African film-makers to tell, nor of artists and craftsmen with whom to collaborate. What audiences are missing is the daring, idiosyncratic, furious, ecstatic personal expression of artists seeking to bring imagined worlds into existence.