Tuesday, 28 February 2017

The Numbed Pains and Furies of “Tess”


That sexual and domestic violence are severe problems in all pockets of 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 these acts of violence, and she hopes that that common sympathy in audiences can help turn the tide in our country and change what we now commonly know as a rape culture. Her film is adapted from the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren (first published in 2008), about the doleful sex worker Tess who, in the course of a career on the beach front of Muizenberg, unexpectedly falls pregnant. Tess (played by Christia Visser) has been masking her own deep psychological pain with a stone-cold face of impenetrable flint, and numbing it with an increasingly dangerous codeine addiction.

Rickards shows us, as if forcing both herself and the audience to watch without flinching, the wearying sexual encounters Tess undergoes daily, her stressful living circumstances with a neighbour whose boyfriend flies into sudden and murderous rages, the physical toll taken by a drug addiction, and the crushing spectacle of an abortion. There’s no aspect of a sex worker’s life that she finds too unseemly to put up on the screen for an audience to endure; in fact, she films these scenes and scenarios precisely because she wants her audience to know those grimy specifics – one scene of terrible physical and sexual violence even depicts Tess’s brutal rape by an unrelenting john. There’s brief nudity later on as well, to highlight the degradation in Tess’s work; Rickards intelligently offers sensationalism without arousal.

But there are many finer, potentially more revealing, almost certainly less known particulars of Tess’s life that Rickards either ignores or doesn’t imagine. Many audience members, being curious moviegoers and unfamiliar as most of them are with the world of prostitution, will miss a great deal of details that they wish to know about Tess but simply aren’t told or shown. Why exactly 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? Does she find any pleasure in sex at all? Why doesn’t she display the wry and hard-won wisdom of other prostitutes and collect her money up front? Does she never use birth control, and, if not, why not? Has she had pregnancy scares before the one depicted in the film? Has she actually fallen pregnant before? If so, what was her reaction and how did she deal with it? Why did she take no measures to prevent it in future? If not, how long has she actually been doing this work? What was she doing before? What is her personal, inner reaction to the violence she endures?

This is the latent, unrealised, likely more revelatory story of Tess that Rickards doesn’t offer; everything we’re not told would illustrate the telling physical, emotional, and practical details of a sex worker’s life, as well as someone who has experienced Tess’s past traumas and despairs. Nearly everyone going into the movie will already know that prostitutes undergo a large number of sexual encounters on a regular basis, many of which are highly unpleasant for them; they know that pregnancy is a constant and heightened risk for prostitutes; 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 to me like an unnecessary bond of fealty to its source material (which I haven’t read), that contains scenes from a sex worker’s life but that don’t say very much about that life or let us in on the subjective experience of it.

(MILD SPOILER ALERT) A backstory is revealed to us in traipsing flashbacks to reveal the root of Tess’s pain and isolation. Child abuse, woefully, is just as widespread and even more damaging a problem in South Africa than gender-based violence, and those in the know are straining to do what they can to tackle it. This ever-present outrage, brewing in the subconscious of nearly all artists aware of the facts, seems to be breaking forth into novelists and film-makers and other artists’ representations in their works, which accounts for the child rape we’ve seen portrayed in films over the last few years, such as Dis Ek, Anna, Noem My Skollie, and now Tess. It explains, through blunt psychologising connections in the script, Tess’s alienation, why it’s so important to her that her panties are always clean, and why it is that birds are a recurring motif that echo, for Tess, an assault and a tarnishing debasement.

The crawl back to society and to connecting with people is brought about by Tess’s interactions with the warmhearted people around her, both offering and in need of protection and support. Her neighbour, Bonita (for whom I couldn’t find a credit on the film’s IMDb page), and her daughter move in with Tess for a brief period while Bonita’s boyfriend Merrick (Brendon Daniels) slings about threats, and, later, attempts, to rape and kill either or both of them. Another neighbour, the Congolese immigrant Madeleine (Nse Ikpe-Etim), recruits her to help her sew outfits for a local dancing group, and offers motherly comfort to a nearly disconsolate Tess. A john (whose name I can’t recall and whose credit is also absent) who hires her in the hope she can cure his impotence opens up to her about his childlessness and his wife Chantal’s (also not credited) deep need for children. All around, it’s mothers who tend to and prop up Tess, and bring her to the point of strength where she can address the burning unredressed 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 – she relays the wide-reaching identification of many women to her fund-raising protest walk in a piece published by the Mail & Guardian while the film was still in production – and the portrait of Tess is not a highly individual one. The performances of the cast 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 of the artifice and breathe life into their roles. They aren’t quite placed in a tangible context of time and place either; Farren’s script and Rickards’s camera don’t move out into the surrounds to capture the wider social and political scenario, 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 expression or intimation outside of what’s laid out in the script.

Hopefully a significant portion of moviegoers will go see Tess, support the local industry, and make it easier for Rickards to go on making feature films – 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 messages to deliver, agendas to enact, artists and craftsmen with whom to collaborate, or aesthetic routes to take. What audiences are missing is the daring, idiosyncratic, furious, ecstatic personal expression of artists seeking to create imagined worlds, and to fully depict life according to their subjective experiences of it. The personal immediacy of audience’s reactions is what is required to change any culture, and that artistic expression is the way to achieve it.

Tess is currently playing in South African theatres. Check the Ster Kinekor (info@sterkinekor.com) and Nu Metro (086 124 6362; helpdesk@numetro.co.za) websites for screenings near you. If there isn’t a screening near you, call the each of them to find out why and see what can be done about it. In English and Afrikaans, with English subtitles.

Read what other critics have to say about the film here.

Note (1 March 2017): Rickards also published a column in the Mail & Guardian shortly before the film’s theatrical release on the updated context of rape and violence in South Africa, and the new reality of a boastfully avowing sexual predator in the Oval Office. Read it here.

Image: www.imdb.com

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