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.