THE film Tess, winner of the Best South African Film award at the 2016 Durban International Film Festival is about a pregnant 20-year-old sex worker who is a survivor of child abuse and violence and who fights to get her life back on the right track. The film was screened under the competition section at the BRICS film festival in Delhi. Its Capetown-based director, 43-year-old Meg Rickards, talks about how she conceived the film and how Tess holds a mirror to society. Excerpts:
Tess is an adaptation of the 2009 novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren. What made you choose it?
I first read the novel in 2010 and was completely captivated by it. I just couldn’t put it down. And then I fell in love with the main character, Tess. She was just so vulnerable and brave. I allowed her into every thought, and then I went through an emotional roller coaster ride with her. Also, the novel was quite cinematic and I immediately started imagining it as a movie. I knew that I had to bring this story to the screen.
Did the book allow for cinematic liberties?
The book is very detailed and episodic. The big challenge while turning it into a screenplay was to distil its
essence. We changed the order of events and Tracey (author Tracey Farren) even wrote new things for the screenplay. It is not faithful to the novel as far as the structure and the content is concerned. But in terms of its spirit, it is very much faithful.
In what ways do both Whiplash and Tess reflect South African society?
The book is set in Muizenberg in Cape Town, which has always been a cultural melting pot. You have people from diverse societies living there, including refugees and people from central Africa. Also, it is a mix between the rich and the poor, which is kind of peculiar. I found it to be a place of contrast, so, socially, it didn’t need to be reconstructed, because it is like that. Tess is a story about abuse against children and women. In South Africa, we have the highest rape statistic in the world after any war zone. And it is something that, as a woman and mother, keeps me awake at night. I wanted to find a way to talk about it in a way that wasn’t didactic so that I could draw people in through the power of cinema.
The number of women scriptwriters, actors and producers in the five BRICS nations is low. How can it be changed?
The scarcity of women in the industry amongst the BRICS nation is really a big challenge. A couple of years ago, a local female distributor told me that I should really not bother to make this film as no one was going to see it. And it is really hard when you have people in position of power not believing in a project. It can be changed. One just needs the thick skin of a rhino.
What are you working on currently?
I would like to make a film about the young Gandhi and the time he spent in South Africa. I think it is going to be a very exciting project. I would like to talk to Indian producers for co-production on this. It will be an important film as he developed his philosophy of Satyagarh in South Africa and for me, that is a very interesting link.