2016: Tess: Shining a light on sexual abuse

Charl Blignaut
2016-06-24 12:29
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 A scene from Tess. Picture: Supplied

Film: Tess 

Director: Meg Rickards 

Starring: Christia Visser, Nse Ikpe-Etim, Brendon Daniels, Lee-Ann van Rooi, Dann-Jacques Mouton 

Young actress Christia Visser gives one of the bravest, most potent and internalised performances of any of the films at the Durban International Film Festival this year. 

Wearing too much eyeliner and downing pain pills with Coca-Cola, she is gritty and detached, but in her eyes is a desperate need to belong. 

She is sex worker Tess, who offers her services along the seashore of the Western Cape. 

The curious thing is that she charges next to nothing – R100 – for her work. Also, she’s afraid of birds. 

These are two of the many questions that the film – based on the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren – sets out to answer. And it’s going to be a gruelling path of discovery as she faces the darkness of her past. 


Tess comes with multiple trigger alerts if you have ever been sexually abused or raped. But the violence in the film is in no way gratuitous. 

Like with Dis Ek, Anna last year, Tess is a timely and brutalising film about the treatment of girl children and women at the hands of those closest to them. 

This is counterpointed by the kindness of women who open their hearts to Tess. Slowly she learns to feel and begins to heal. 

Director Meg Rickards has moved from documentary features to narrative ones and brings that journalistic gaze along. 

Her opening sequence – shot by a drone racing across the ocean until it crashes into Tess’ balcony window – is majestic and her performance direction solid. 

Almost too solid in that this is a conventional and realistic film with little experimentation. Where it takes risks, though, is in its content. 

For once the sex worker is a white women and it is black women who come to her aid, neatly flipping the script. 

The violent male gangster is also countered by a kind and confused husband. And gratefully, Rickards has shot in luminous light colours and delicious blues, contesting her dark story. 

Harrowing and important, the film is in competition in Durban and has one last screening tonight. 

Take your man friends and go and see it. You’ll need a drink afterwards. 

» Tess screens at Nu Metro 12 at the Pavilion in Durban tonight, June 24, at 8pm