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Time for the pussy to grab back

BODY LANGUAGE
Yes, the unthinkable happened and the man who is the United States president thinks it’s cool to grab you by the pussy.

It is not nice when one’s genitals are given an unsolicited squeeze. It happened to me on a train when I was barely in my teens and a few other times besides, and each time is seared into my memory like sulphur.

Of course, there are far, far crueller forms of sexual violence. But pussy-grabbing stands for an insidiously misogynistic attitude that regards women and girls as holes. And in the case of Donald Trump, it’s probably a surface wound: this is a man who’s been accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault.

So I was heartened by the record-smashing global women’s marches in the wake of his inauguration. The symbolic protest of donning pink woollen hats won’t bring down a president but it was crucial that women say: “No — systemic sexism can never be tolerated,” and that we keep on saying it.

On the eve of Women’s Day in 2014, I did the crazy thing of walking from Cape Town to Muizenberg dressed in a torn petticoat and with painted-on bruises to raise awareness and funds for a film I badly wanted to make, based on the novel Whiplash by Tracey Farren.

Miraculously, the film got made. It’s about a young sex worker called Tess. Of course, sex workers are not the only women, or men, to suffer abuse but their treatment is arguably a barometer of how dire things are in our society as a whole.

Child abuse and rape are so ubiquitous — right across the board — that the statistics are difficult to digest; 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 and impossible to ignore or to intellectualise.

There are several scenes that many will find challenging to watch. Truth be told, they hurt to make — for myself, for Christia Visser (who played Tess), for the other actors who had to “go there” emotionally, and for the crew.

Why throw myself or others into the maelstrom? Why not “tone it down” and suggest rather than show? Because I believe that the only moral way to depict violence is so that it hurts. If there is any obfuscation, any vicarious pleasure offered to the audience, if there is any easy catharsis, it feels like a betrayal to real victims everywhere.

Sometimes I feel the need to offer audience members a stiff drink afterwards. But truly, I’m not sorry for one frame.

Given that I’m a filmmaker — not a nurse, educator or social worker, who would have infinitely more practical responses — this is what I could do about the things that keep me awake at night: make a movie. I have this mad hope in the power of cinema, not to change the world (if only!) but to nudge it. Cinema’s punch, I believe, comes from its capacity to create empathy and on this basis I challenge viewers to take 88 minutes to walk in Tess’s battered boots.

Sexualised violence in South Africa has multiple layers of complexity. Tess is not a general representation; it is one small story about one woman. We need many voices to tell many stories, to keep reiterating the message: “No!” And we need all sorts of energies to keep seeking solutions, from education to intervention, policing and law implementation to caring, advocacy and so much else besides.

Tess opens in cinemas on February 24 — poes-pink beanies strictly optional. Whether you like it or hate it, you’re welcome to let me know. Let’s talk. If you ask, I’ll even buy you that drink.

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