Bringing Tess to the big screen

A gritty no-holds-barred drama.

Tess is a hard-hitting journey into the heart of a young prostitute who sells her soul on the streets of Cape Town.

Tracey Farren adapted her novel to film, with Meg Rickards in the director’s chair.


Sassy twenty-year-old Tess (Christa Visser) sells her body on Cape Town’s streets.  She survives by popping painkillers by the bunch and through her wry humour.  But her life turns upside down when she falls pregnant. Though Tess tries to run, her past torments her. She begins to question her own sanity. Tess fights back, fighting her demons, searching for the truth.

When she abandons her daily ritual of popping pills, awful pictures from her past ambush her mind. But Tess does not allow herself to collapse. Instead, she learns – perhaps because of the baby in her belly – to connect with the people around her. The Congolese refugee next door (Nse Ikpe-Etim0 treats her like a daughter. An impotent client shows her his heart. Tess finds sanctuary among strong women in a belly dance studio, and discovers she can dance up a storm. With new courage she tracks down her childhood friend, Dumi, who helps her to face the truth of her past.

Director’s statement


Tracey Farren

“The fact that Tess is a sex worker is almost incidental.  She’s a young woman who is undergoing a tumultuous journey: facing the truth of her childhood, coming to terms with it and moving forward with her inner dignity intact.

She is so unflinchingly honest that your skin itches; you feel her suffering like a punch in the gut and her catharsis like a purging of your own emotional closet.


Meg most recently co-directed the documentary, 1994: the bloody miracle, about the lead-up to South Africa’s first democratic elections. The film won the audience award at the Durban International Film Festival and the Writers’ Guild of South Africa award for best documentary script. Internationally, the film was screened by Dutch broadcaster VPRO, and opened the Nobel Peace Laureate Youth Summit as well as the Watch Africa Festival in the United Kingdom. Her miniseries and tele-feature versions of Land of Thirst were translated into several languages and distributed widely.

We have shot a film that inhabits Tess on every level; where the cinematography, sound design and music are all about her experience of the world.

We wanted to get into her eyes, to feel what she is feeling.  Most of the film is handheld, because we want to create the feeling that the camera is present with the actors, moving, reacting and breathing with them.

Stylistically we were inspired by the organic, “honest” quality of films such as Fish Tank (dir. Andrea Arnold) and Biutiful (dir. Alejandro Iñárritu), while working in a very different setting and with an extremely different set of social realities.

We have used exclusively found locations, bathed in intense African light and colour.  The editing style prioritises emotional arc rather than continuity.

Dialogue is in raw “street” Afrikaans and idiomatic South African English.  The score is a brooding and pensive mix of guitar-driven ambiences, often blurring the lines between music and naturally occurring rhythms like heartbeats and train tracks.