Based on the novel Whiplash (re-released as Tess to coincide with the film) by Tracey Farren, "Tess" is directed by Meg Rickards and stars award winner Christia Visser (best actress at both the International Durban Festival and the Silwerskermfees) in the title role.
There are many reasons that make this a groundbreaking film; the topic and the handling – without kid gloves – perhaps the most important.
In a country (and a world for that matter) where sexual violence is pandemic, the way we tell these stories is important. If I should retell the story of "Tess", it would sound familiar to many, that's why for this one, it is the way it is told, in your face, and no shying away, that has the biggest impact.
The script is sparse on dialogue but when it comes to violence, especially the sexual kind, the camera lingers and forces you to watch the full impact of a young girl taking her life in her own hands every time she gets into the car with a stranger. There's no easy answer.
A few years back, playwright/director Paul Grootboom showed a rape to go on and on and on (perhaps for 15 minutes) on stage because he wanted a punch drunk audience to understand, to stand still and take the reality in, without any cushioning. It worked. What started off met by embarrassed giggles was followed by a stunned silence. But it took that relentlessness to get that response.
In "Tess", it is the simplicity with which the young woman's story is told with very few words, not much exposition other than honing in on her daily life, which is so forceful. Here is a seemingly ordinary pretty girl whose life has fallen by the wayside and apart from the community she has sought out, as broken as she is, no one else seems to see her.
What is it like being a prostitute from morning till night? What are you faced with? Why does it happen? Who cares for you? How do you cope?
These are the questions that are answered as young Tess walks the streets, gets picked up and goes about her business with a dulled expression in her eyes, every morning, like clockwork, until night, when she dulls herself with pills popped with a soda. It's a vicious routine with no good outcome.
But here's what turns his film into something extraordinary. It's a movie that has obviously been thought through from every vantage point. It was a decision to allow the pictures rather than words tell the story, to choose the exquisite Muizenberg coast as an emotional pointer, to select a cast of such caliber to support Visser (Lee Anne Van Rooi, Quanita Adams, Brendon Daniels, Dann-Jacques Mouton, Nse Ikpe-Etim) and then to execute everything so masterfully and with such a delicate balance.
It had to have that brutal punch for full effect but in the background there are many different stories happening, like unique South African complexities where for example some see only colour while others, as in this instance, ignore it completely, obviously the ideal state.
"Tess" isn't an easy movie to watch. The subject matter is a harsh, yet compelling one, which cannot be ignored. And when it is captured this skillfully, it's hard to resist if you want to see exactly where our film industry is at.
· Tess was the official South African entry for the Oscar's Foreign Film category and is currently on local circuit.