LISTEN: Tess, with Christia Visser (right) in the leading role, contains a heart-wrenching message. It is up to viewers to absorb it.
Film may have the tainted label “popular culture”, but the fact that, like theatre, it includes sound, visuals, storyline and special effects marks it as an art form with tremendous power to move minds and hearts.

In this respect, it qualifies as such as an art form that reaches far and wide. Yet this film, beyond the Hollywood gloss and glamour, is a memorable experience.

This is said with circumspect, for this film is brutal, honest and raw. One would hope its effect changes perceptions and motivates action that will generate awareness of issues of violence against women that will, one hopes change the landscape, particularly in South Africa.

I was fortunate to attend the screening of the film at Nu Metro in association with Boondoggle Films, Times Media Films and the Nonceba Family Counselling Centre. The centre is a non-profit organisation that attempts to alleviate the high incidence of rape and violence against women and children in Khayelitsha.

Tess, played by award-winning actress Christia Visser, is a young woman on the fringes of society who sells her body for a living. She copes by popping pain tablets, but her world is turned upside down when she becomes pregnant.

I will not divulge the plot any further, save to say that it unravels in Muizenberg, Cape Town.

The cinematography, music and sound, editing and dialogue is to the tee. Course and vulgar, yet sensitive and subtle just as nature is at once menacing and ominous as well as inviting and gentle.

There are often birds in some scenes which reminded me of Roger Ballen’s photographic and video exploration. The dialogue is crisp and without flowery elaboration; the photographic work shifts between close-ups – tattered surroundings, bruised bodies and faces – and panoramic scenery with the hope of escape and a solution. One can judge the characters only in context for morality is relative to context and the viewer will have to decide on ethical issues. What one can perhaps say is that the plight of the downtrodden is not something one can simply judge and cast aside.

The music is well considered, often incorporating the natural sound – although heightened – of a heartbeat, trains, intense booms and the like - amid music. This adds to the drama and the psychological torment of the characters, in particular the protagonist.

Repetition also serves to make the main salient points of the film: questions of innocence and the loss thereof, the feeling of trying to cleanse, the desire for salvation, the inability to break out of a pattern or system and the suffocating degradation of woman at the hands of violent men.

The film is based on the novel by Tracey Farren titled Whiplash. Director Richards has brought it to life for the screen. The screen, yes, what a magical place and one that is not simply the haunt of Hollywood with all its glitz and special effects.

Without being overly sentimental, South Africans should be proud of this production. It claimed top prize at the Durban International Film festival as the Best SA film, best actress award for Visser and best editing by Linda Man. But beyond awards, there is a heart-wrenching message and one would hope that this motivated change and upliftment, in South Africa and beyond.

For art’s message is often much about social transformation. This is all the more poignant because if this sort of message is not taken cognisance of, we fail the next generation.

Tess laments her loss of innocence. One cannot avoid the fact that there is a clear correspondence between the way somebody acts and behaves and childhood experience and trauma. While that does not necessarily mitigate acts of violence and abuse, the fact is until a child is allowed to grow in a safe environment with opportunity and growth, the future will probably be bleak.

I hope the film raises more eyebrows – not just for the sake of art but as a beacon of light for change, even as the film is in some senses dark, harrowing and disturbing.

Tess is written and directed by Meg Richards.