Arts and Culture

Portrait of poetry and passion

Karen Van Schalkwyk

Black Butterflies gives us a vivid picture of the ­ crazy, ­chaotic and candid life of Ingrid Jonker.

‘The death of poets sends a dark tone ringing out over the world. Of all the children of man, they are the strangest, the most beloved, disturbing and beyond reach. To all times, the holy ones. They are not buried with their bodies, but remain to shake and confuse us, to awaken the living, their language is universal; among these Ingrid Jonker.”

So wrote Jack Cope in his book A Crown of Wild Olive (1966).

Black Butterflies is a complex cinematic portrait of the acclaimed South African poet, Ingrid Jonker.

Jonker was resurrected in the minds of South Africans when, in his first address in the new South African Parliament on May 24 1994, Nelson Mandela read from Jonker’s poem Die Kind Wat Doodgeskiet Is deur Soldate by Nyanga (The Child Shot Dead by Soldiers at Nyanga). He called her “an Afrikaner woman who transcended a particular experience and became a South African, an African and a citizen of the world”.

Mandela said: “She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being. In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life.”

Black Butterflies is a film that asserts Jonker as a complex, contradictory and rebellious poet. It provides an exceptional look into her life, concentrating on her tumultuous love affair with Cope, her troubled relationship with her father and her great need to express herself through her poetry.

Idiosyncratic, individual and unique
The film germinated in the mind of Dutch producer Arry Voorsmit when he first came across Jonker’s poetry in the footage of Mandela reciting ­Jonker’s poem.

“I came to realise how special, how important, idiosyncratic, individual and unique she was,” said Voorsmit.

The film took eight years to get to the screen. Acclaimed South African screenwriter Greg Latter was brought on board to write the screenplay. “I was approached by Voorsmit in 2003,” Latter said.

“Like many English-speaking South Africans, I knew about Jonker only through the poem Madiba read at the opening of the first democratically elected Parliament, but the moment I started researching her and reading her work I was completely hooked. There was something so bold, courageous and uncompromising about her voice that I just wanted to dig deeper.”

After Jonker’s death in 1965 the master of the court awarded copyright and control of her literary estate to Cope. Her papers are now housed at the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown.

Latter found inspiration in Cope’s diaries and recalls his research at the museum: “I went there and sat in a drab little room while someone with gloves brought me Cope’s diaries. Jack was the kind of guy who wrote a page a day. I sat there reading his innermost feelings about Ingrid. I couldn’t have had a better insight into her if she had told me about herself. Here was a man trying to fathom her out, giving me complete access to the incredibly complicated, wild spirit of Ingrid Jonker.”

Throughout, Cope’s words are remarkably honest, even down to details of the first time they made love, says Latter.

“In the first years it was very romantic and he called her ‘my sweet pea’, then, after a while, he would refer to her as ‘hell’. He had a terrible time with her because she was such a difficult person to be with, yet he felt he could not be without her.”
Latter believes the script could not have been written without this understanding.

Hippie before hippies
“There is no doubt that Ingrid was slightly crazy, sometimes destructively so, but then she could also be the sweetest, most adorable person in the world. Jack’s heart was broken many times by her and yet it was also healed by her. Clinically, I guess, she was a manic depressive, but with a father like hers, Abraham Jonker, a Nationalist MP and head of the censorship board, it was not that surprising. Plus she liked to drink and smoke the odd ‘zol’. Walking barefoot was also important to her. She was a hippie before we had hippies in South Africa.”

Besides Cope’s dairies, Latter relied on documentaries and books for additional information—as well as Jonker’s poetry. Although Cope’s diaries provided most of the insight into Jonker, Cope’s son, Michael Cope, also recalled Jonker’s presence from his childhood.

“Michael said that whenever she came into a place which was ­environmentally ordered, when she left, she left it in chaos—in every sense, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

One of the most challenging aspects was bringing the inner voice of the poet to life.

Poetry never transfers easily to film, said Latter: “This is because it is so much about the ‘inner voice’ of someone. We had to find various narrative techniques to get the poetry on to the screen as a visual entity, rather than something that is just recited or spoken. Ultimately, my approach was to make Ingrid’s character a poem in itself. That was my mantra.”  Dutch actor Carice van Houten, critically acclaimed for her performance in Paul Verhoeven’s war epic Black Book, was signed to play Jonker. She recently won a Golden Calf for the Jonker role at the 31st Nederlands Film Festival.

When Oscar-nominated director Paula van der Oest came on board, the title of the movie was changed from Smoke and Ochre (Rook en Oker), the title of Jonker’s award-winning 1963 collection of poetry, to Black Butterflies, drawn from another Jonker work.

Both Latter and Van der Oest are adamant that although the story is set against the backdrop of apartheid, it is about Jonker’s life. Her complexity was the key to the story.

Suicide and the sea
“She had no shields or masks or defences. That brutal honesty was either repellent to people or they thought it was really fresh. Men were surprised by it, but she was also beautiful and looked great in a bikini. There was no shyness about her body and feelings.”

Latter and Van der Oest spent time in Holland and at Latter’s home in Knysna to thrash out the story.

“Paula and I worked a great deal on the screenplay and I insisted that we meet on the beach because the beach and the seafront were so important in Ingrid’s life. The sea and water as a constant metaphor, as are butterflies. I made the sea a recurring image, as though the sea was waiting for her.”

Jonker would finally commit suicide by walking into the sea.

Latter believes that all great artists are in some way tortured. “They allow themselves to feel honestly, completely honestly, no matter that the world is not a very happy place.”

Black Butterflies
opens on circuit on Friday, October 21

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