Black Butterflies opens and closes with the sea, a telling metaphor for the passion and the turbulence of the short life of South African poet Ingrid Jonker. The introductory scene is a chiastic device that foreshadows Jonker’s untimely death. Panning the deserted seashore and the open sea, the camera slowly zooms in to focus on a young woman. She is alone in the ocean and far from shore, struggling to survive against the relentless swell. Death flutters about her and seems about to swoop down when a jogger appears on the beach. He catches sight of the woman’s flailing arms, races out, and finally pulls her back to shore.
This episode, like some others in the movie, is a fictionalized version of a significant aspect of Jonker’s life. Director Paula van der Oest has made a biopic; it tells the story of Ingrid Jonker—her poetry and her striving against the oppressive grip of apartheid in the early sixties—but it is not a documentary. It is a feature film inspired by the poet’s life, a poetic blend of fact and fiction that is nevertheless an emotionally accurate telling.
Black Butterflies, which opened last week, was shown at New York’s Athena Film Festival last month, along with other films that celebrate outstanding women—women whose achievements changed the lives of others for the better.
The sea is a recurring element in Jonker’s poetry, and death in one form or another is always hovering, in her writing and in her life. Jack Cope, who rescues Jonker in the film, was her mentor, lover, and friend, but the famous author wasn’t able to save Jonker from herself. In 1965, when she was 31, the Sylvia Plath of South Africa drowned herself in the waters off Cape Town, overcome by depression and alcoholism. Both Jonker and Plath had failed marriages and committed suicide within two years of each other when they were almost the same age.
Jonker was a free spirit who flitted from lover to lover, from shattered dreams to illusory hope. Her eroticism suffuses her poetry and the film. Van der Oest was drawn to Jonker’s story by the combination of her poetry, her tempestuous life, and her difficult relationship with her father. The pall of impending death and the exuberance of South Africa’s natural beauty are major players in this narrative. Dutch actress Carice van Houten skillfully conveys this duality that embodies the central paradox of Jonker’s psyche: Her indomitable will would succumb only to the fragility of her ego. Her need of her father’s approval undercut her fierce rebellion against his values. In spite of herself, she longed for his love and recognition of her worth.
Jonker railed against the injustice of apartheid, which, together with her promiscuity, brought her into direct conflict with her stern and unforgiving father, convincingly played by Rutger Hauer. He was a minister in the government, a censor who gagged any whiff of opposition to the strict regimen of apartheid. He banned his own daughter’s work. He condemned both the politics and the lifestyle of the freewheeling Jonker, because her values challenged the establishment he believed in and had sworn to uphold and preserve. In 1987, O.R. Tambo, the President of the African National Congress at the time, said, “Her tragic passing was as powerful an indictment of the apartheid system as were these verses which she has left us.”
Abraham Jonker makes it very clear that he has no use for his daughter’s poetry. “It’s me in those words, Pa. Don’t you want to know who I am?” she pleads with him. But her entreaty falls on deaf ears. As surely as the poet knew who she was, her father did not. In one scene he repudiates her completely, declaring that he never wants to see her again. Small wonder that she was always unsatisfied, looking for love in all the wrong places.
The most painful scene in the movie depicts Jonker asking her father to read her latest poem. She had written an anguished protest against the cruelty of apartheid, inspired by the murder of a black child by a white policeman. She begs her father to read “Die Kind” (“The Child”) out loud. After a few lines, he puts the paper down, disgusted, saying he can’t read any more. “What do you think of it so far?” she implores. In response, the minister wordlessly tears up the poem. Nearly 30 years after her death, Nelson Mandela read “The Child” to the first democratically elected parliament in South Africa.
Van der Oest highlights Jonker’s sensitivity and sensuality. She communicates them with cinematography that enhances the beauty of South Africa, a constant presence in Jonker’s poetry, but primarily through the brilliance of Carice van Houten’s performance as Ingrid Jonker. “I found it hard to direct a film about a woman who is not immediately sympathetic and easy to watch,” van der Oest told an interviewer. “I think [van Houten] finally managed to make her difficult and sensitive and moving and vulnerable at the same time.”
The director loves the language of South Africa, the language of Jonker’s poetry. Afrikaans evolved from the Dutch spoken by the original white colonists of South Africa. Van der Oest knows it was used as an instrument of oppression of the indigenous people of South Africa and then of both races under apartheid, but she feels it is more poetic than her own Dutch language. Ideally, she would have filmed Black Butterflies in Afrikaans, but settled on English instead so that the film would be accessible worldwide.
The film’s title comes from a line in one of Jonker’s poems. The butterflies are the bodies of massacred African children strewn on the ground. The butterfly is also a symbol for the soul: It is beautiful, but it can easily be associated with the fragility and evanescence of life, especially if it is black, the color of death.
The film derives its power from three women—the director, whose vision molded and harmonized its diverse elements; the leading actress, who imbued a legend with the complexity of an individual; and the subject, Ingrid Jonker, whose talent and courage and vulnerability continue to captivate admirers old and new.
At once elegiac and jubilant, Black Butterflies tells a compelling story. It elucidates how Ingrid Jonker’s expressions of irreparable loss and rage against injustice made her an icon in her native country, “a symbol of martyred yet triumphant femininity.”