/ 14 August 2014

Petticoat protester’s long walk

Britain's former prime Minister Tony Blair and former president Thabo Mbeki during a press conference inside Downing Street in 2006.
Britain's former prime Minister Tony Blair and former president Thabo Mbeki during a press conference inside Downing Street in 2006.

“Nice legs, baby girl,” leered a man on the eve of Women’s Day. “Nice legs.”

I looked far from sexy, wearing a tattered petticoat, with bruises painted on my face and body. We’d predicted the gawp factor, but then we’d wanted people to look. I would play it on the edge of respectability. Bra and panties? Could offend and detract from message. Dressing gown? Nobody would look twice.

Looking back, it seems like another person who walked 26km from Cape Town to Muizenberg. During the lead-up I was apprehensive, shy of my post-babies saggy tum. I had 10 days to beat my muscles out of their atrophy, which I insisted was about managing the distance. But if I’m brutally honest, I was also worried about my wobbly bum.

On the day, however, I couldn’t give a damn. My body was beside the point; I was utterly unselfconscious. Although I was recognisable, I was donning a mask, on a mission. Desperate about the levels of domestic violence, I felt compelled to do something for Women’s Day that wasn’t saccharine or twee.

Still, I can hear you cynically asking, why would I do it? And yes, there is another reason. I’m a filmmaker, struggling – along with my producer, Jacky Lourens – to raise the last 30% of the budget for a film called Whiplash, based on an astounding novel by Tracey Farren. My last film, 1994: the bloody miracle, was a documentary – cheaper to make. With fiction, if you’re not Leon Schuster or clutching the script for a romantic comedy or vicarious gore-fest, you’re screwed. With its themes of prostitution, domestic abuse and misplaced shame, Whiplash is gritty and hard-hitting.

Yet this story got under our skin, so we started a crowdfunding site. Our own circles have been unstintingly generous, but to get closer to our target, we needed to break out of our networks.

So, to put it crassly, the walk was – in part – a publicity stunt. My collaborator and husband, Paul Egan, asked: “What would Richard Branson do?” “Jump out of a plane,” I snapped. I have such bad vertigo, I can hardly climb a ladder.

We decided on something in the spirit of performance art, to embody the film’s premise – about “breaking the silence” and “shedding the shame”. We would make people feel uncomfortable, make them talk.

Talk they did. I hardly heard the catcalls and laughter. What I did hear were the concerned passersby: the homeless person who wanted to escort me to hospital, even after I insisted the wounds weren’t real; the medical student screeching his car to a halt, touching the bruises to believe my assurances. They gave me hope.

Most heartbreaking were the stories I heard along the way, such as the woman who flung her arms around me, saying: “You look like me before I left my husband”; others told me they would leave “one day”.

One lady wept: I reminded her of her mother. As a child, she’d felt helpless. Two schoolgirls took cellphone pictures, stunned that, whereas the women they knew “covered their bruises with scarves and make-up”, I showed mine.

Of course my bruises were easy to display, precisely because they were fake. Unlike many, many women, I don’t carry that particular “whiplash”, or stored-up trauma. I am acutely aware that I had a team watching me all the way and that, on arriving in Muizenberg, I could step into the sea and wash the bruises away.

A tiny gesture like a walk won’t make any meaningful difference. But perhaps it will take us one step closer to making the film, which I believe can have a more sustained impact. Films can be good at promoting empathy, sometimes even shifting cultural attitudes.

I am still reeling from the flood of post-walk messages. A building contractor contacted me on Facebook to say his crew had discussed domestic violence for ages after I’d passed by. Survivors of abuse are still getting in touch to share experiences that are shaking me to my core. I salute their resilience.

One woman emailed me her harrowing story as an incest survivor: “It frustrates me that absolutely nothing has changed in law or prevailing attitudes, and sometimes a movie changes lives. I hope that Whiplash will be one of them.”

I hope so too. I’d walk any distance for that, wearing anything or nothing at all.

For more information, please visit facebook.com/whiplashfilm or thundafund.com/whiplash. Ten percent of the funds raised go to the Saartjie Baartman Centre for women and children who are survivors of abuse