Black Butterflies

2011-10-25 15:52
What it's about:

She searched for a home. She searched for love. Confronted by Apartheid and a father who was Minister of Censorship. With men like Jack Cope and André Brink she found much love, but no home. In his first speech to the South African Parliament, Nelson Mandela read her poem, The Dead Child of Nyanga, and addressed her as one of the finest poets in South Africa.

What we thought:

Paula van der Oest’s Black Butterflies depicts the tragic life, troubled spirit and true genius of one of South Africa's greatest poets. Ingrid Jonker's life story is sensitively portrayed with a moving performance by Dutch actress Carice van Houten as the tormented wordsmith. The film follows Ingrid’s life as a poet and tragic figure in the years leading up to the publication of her volume of poetry entitled Rook en Oker (Smoke and Ochre) and her death in 1965.

The film briefly shows Ingrid's humble beginnings as a child in a rural fishing community where she lived with her grandmother. However, when her grandmother dies, Ingrid and her sister are sent to go live with her estranged father in Cape Town.

Her story then recommences in Cape Town during the early 1960's where she lives a bohemian lifestyle amongst a group of artists and writers of the time now referred to a the "Sestigers". One day she meets the writer Jack Cope (played Liam Cunningham) by chance when he saves her from drowning in the ocean. It is the beginning of a passionate and ill-fated love affair that will resonate throughout the film and Ingrid's writing.

Carice van Houten seems to understand Jonker's dark melancholy and is able to bring the brooding sadness of Ingrid's poems to life through her performance. Throughout her life Ingrid’s genius is only overshadowed by her emotional instability and her propensity towards self-destruction, and Van Houten and director Van der Oest do their best to highlight the strange almost symbiotic relationship between the two forces in Ingrid’s life.

Writing for Ingrid is a cathartic pursuit – the film portrays this by constantly focusing on the presence of written words in Ingrid's life. In her childhood room we see the walls covered in her scrawl and in another scene her fingers write out poetry on the window panes around her. For Ingrid there is no distinction between her words and her life – when her heart is broken, she writes poetry as raw as her wounds – when she feels the acute frustration of being trapped in a society of intolerance and injustice, her poems echo those thoughts.

The society in which she finds herself is, of course, the heyday of apartheid South Africa. Numerous scenes depict the everyday realities of a segregated world, which drive Ingrid mad with anger. Her rebellion against the system is made even more significant since her father Abraham Jonker works for the apartheid government as chairman of the censorship committee.

The film does well in depicting Ingrid's strained relationship with her stolid, stone-hearted father, which caused so much of her heartache throughout her life. Her constant attempts to gain his approval are heart-wrenching, and when he finally dismisses her completely, she is utterly shattered.

Rutger Hauer as the callous Abraham Jonker perfectly emanates the kind of stifling Afrikaner mentality that Ingrid Jonker and the Sestigers as a group opposed.

Liam Cunningham as the calm and steady Jack Cope also delivers a wonderful performance. In Ingrid's violent seas of emotional distress and yearning for love, he consistently acts as anchor. Cope becomes a father figure for Van Houten’s Ingrid, who longs for her own father's love and praise.

Beautiful snippets of Jonker’s poetry are weaved into the film and it is clear that it is where Van der Oest has anchored her understanding of Jonker as character.

The Dutch team have crafted a beautiful portrait of one of South Africa’s national treasures, and yet the absence of a single Afrikaans word, both written and spoken falls like a deafening silence upon the ear. In fact, the complete disregard for Afrikaans is so obvious that there is a real possibility that international viewers might be convinced that she was in fact, an English writer.

Nonetheless, despite a few details that have been altered to suit the film’s flow (and a few that were allegedly altered due to certain living writers’ request not to be included as part of the film’s story) the film is a faithful, sensitive and moving depiction of the turbulent times and the tragic life of an incredible literary figure.

A faithful, sensitive and moving depiction of the turbulent times and the tragic life of iconic Afrikaans poet Ingrid Jonker.
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