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‘Tess’ Helmer Meg Rickards: Cinema Can Help Change ‘Rape Culture’

Meg Rickards is no stranger to the spotlight in Durban, where she won the documentary audience award two years ago for “1994: The Bloody Miracle.” This year she returns with “Tess,” a powerful adaptation of the award-winning South African novel “Whiplash,” about a 20-year-old prostitute in Cape Town whose life is torn apart by drug addiction, rape, and an unwanted pregnancy. Rickards spoke to Variety about the challenge of confronting a difficult subject head-on, and whether South Africa might be at a turning point in its fight against sexual violence.

Variety: Your movie is adapted from Tracey Farren’s award-winning novel “Whiplash,” about a 20-year-old prostitute and addict in Cape Town whose life is turned upside-down by an unexpected pregnancy. Had you read the book before you came onboard for the movie? How did that source material influence how you made “Tess”?

Rickards: I read “Whiplash” in 2009 and became besotted by the uncannily real main character, Tess, and by her journey. My pillow was sodden by the time I finished reading the book — it shook me to my core. I was desperate to adapt the novel for the screen, but learned that Tracey Farren was already writing the script, with a producer and director attached. Gutted, I tried to move on. A year later I still couldn’t get the project out of my head and found out that the option on the script was lapsing. We picked up the project and spent the next couple of years working with Tracey to develop it further.

The source material is riveting in conveying Tess’ internal thoughts and memories, and so the challenge was to find cinematic ways of getting under Tess’ skin through performance, visuals and sound. The novel is gut-wrenchingly explicit, and likewise, I didn’t want the movie to sanitize Tess’ experience in any way. Of course the film is condensed, and can’t hope to be as detailed or nuanced as the book, but I hope it captures something of the Tess that so obsessed me.

Variety: Audiences might be reminded of Roman Polanski’s classic adaptation of “Tess of the D’Urbervilles,” with Nastassja Kinski in the leading role. Was there any influence there? Do you see a parallel with your own film — a young woman who’s victimized by an unfair society, but who manages to discover her own inner strength at the worst of times?

Rickards: At the risk of exposing myself as a literary and cinematic philistine, I have never read Hardy’s classic; nor had I watched Polanski’s adaptation — until two days ago. Our film was originally called “Whiplash” in line with Tracey’s novel. But then in 2014 Damien Chazelle’s smash-hit movie came out, bearing OUR name, blast it! Our film would follow too hot on its heels, so we test-drove a couple of new ones, until during post-production the editor Linda Man and I decided the film was so unrelentingly about the main character that it should be named “Tess” after her. Of course I knew about “Tess of the D’urbervilles” and Polanski’s adaptation, but didn’t imagine any confusion with the 1979 Oscar-winner!

Tracey and I joke about how “concrete” I am compared to her more spiritual outlook, but having belatedly watched Polanksi’s brilliantly cinematic “Tess,” I concede that there is some kind of shared pulse. Our Tess is brutalized at a very early age — with devastating consequences as she keeps re-enacting her trauma, until she eventually turns round and says “No.” So yes, there is an unwitting parallel.

Variety: Polanski’s “Tess” got a notoriously rough reception at Cannes. Do you worry about how South African audiences will react to a story that bluntly confronts some uncomfortable truths about their society? Within the industry, what sort of reaction did you get?

Rickards: The industry is in some respects a tolerant space. It is very different sending a film out to the broad public: I am certain some viewers will find the film overly explicit. For this story, in this society, I was compelled to chuck the kid gloves away. I wanted watching “Tess” to be a visceral and emotional experience. The cinematographer Bert Haitsma and I talked long and hard about how to film the rape scene in particular, and we worked carefully with the actors, to ensure that the audience remains very much “with Tess.”

Christia Visser so courageously embodies the character of Tess; her performance is so explosive — I think that many viewers will be drawn in. Brendon Daniels opposite her is also astoundingly brave. Still, no doubt some people will hate the film and I’ll come under fire for being so direct. So be it. Rather that than an insipid “it was OK” kind of reaction.

Variety: South Africa has one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world, and I know you’ve worked to build awareness around a film that, as you’ve put it, “expresses a refusal to keep abuse secret or take the blame.” Can you talk about the “Walk for Whiplash,” and how you think “Tess” can contribute to an ongoing dialogue in the country? How successful was your crowd-funding campaign, and what does that say about South Africans’ changing attitudes toward sexual violence?

Rickards: Yes, it’s famously said that a woman born in South Africa has more chance of being raped than of learning to read. Child abuse and rape are terrifyingly ubiquitous. So much so that the stats are difficult to digest — and we remain numb. I wanted to make a film that confronted the raw reality of sexual violence in a way that was in your face, impossible to ignore or intellectualize. It needed to be urgent and angering.

For a long time our film was stuck in the funding doldrums. At our wits’ end we had begun a crowd-funding campaign but needed to extend our reach beyond our own circles…. We decided on something in the spirit of performance art, to embody the film’s premise — about “breaking the silence” and “shedding the shame.”…So I walked from the center of [Cape Town], 26 kilometers along the Main Road arterial to Muizenberg, the seaside suburb where our film is set —dressed in a torn petticoat and painted-on bruises.

I didn’t know yet what a crucial part of my filmmaking journey the walk would become. Along the way, strangers stopped me. One woman flung her arms around me, saying: “You look like me before I left my husband”; others assured me they would leave “one day.” Yet another wept: I reminded her of her mother, and she’d felt so helpless as a child to help her.  Schoolgirls snapped photos on their phones, amazed that whereas the women they knew covered their bruises with scarves and makeup, I showed mine. Of course my bruises were easy to display, precisely because they were fake — something I kept pointing out. When I reached Muizenberg and stepped into the sea to wash them away, I was more determined than ever to make the film.

The money we raised via crowd-funding was a small portion of the final budget, but it made it possible for us to carry on — and yes, I do think the support points to the fact that South Africans have had enough of what is now being called a “rape culture,” and that that there is a groundswell to change things…. Of course none of us suppose the film will solve issues of gender-based violence and child abuse. But I do believe that films can be good at promoting empathy, sometimes even shifting cultural attitudes. Anthony Minghella said films aren’t capable of changing the world, but can sometimes nudge it in better directions. I’d be so grateful if “Tess” could do a bit of nudging.

 

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