A poet set against her world
Jack Cope is taking his regular jog along the beach when he notices a knot of police officers fishing a woman’s body out of the water.
In this final scene of Black Butterflies, he watches and suspects it could be his love Ingrid Jonker floating dead in the morning’s ocean.
So, in the grand romantic tradition, Black Butterflies, a biographical movie about the life and times of the late South African poet, ends with the artist having succumbed to the excruciating burdens of her existence. Here, then, is her transformative significance as a historical figure.
And as the camera pans the tumultuous ocean, the audience is addressed by the voice of Nelson Mandela opening South Africa’s first parliamentary meeting in 1994, where he reads out one of Jonker’s poems, The Child Is Not Dead!
In this way, Mandela codifies the dead Afrikaner poet into the meaning of a nation resiliently struggling to birth itself anew.
It’s in her succumbing then, in her suicide and fittingly in death, that Jonker’s troubled humanity is finally resolved and consolidated into an embraceable whole.
However, before this moment in the narrative trajectory created by director Paula van der Oest, the film is nothing less than a study of Jonker’s methods of dying.
It’s a brooding, shadowy picture with a severe and emotional gravity. The sum of it all does not pretend to celebrate its primary subject or her turbulent life. Rather, what we are presented with here is a passionate portrait of her wounds.
The director here begins her tale of Jonker’s conflict with the world by locating the poet’s first major heartbreak, the death of her mother in 1943.
Then 10 years old Jonker, played by Carice van Houten, along with her older sister Anna, are taken to live with their father Abraham Jonker – played by Rutger Hauer – his third wife and their children.
Jonker’s parents separated before she was born. That’s why the two sisters are treated like outsiders at their father’s house. In fact, they live in the servants’ quarters. This apparent wedge between the girls, especially Jonker, and their father forms a large part of the film’s tragic thread.
Jonker’s father was the head of the apartheid government’s Publications Control Board, which was responsible for the censorship of artists like his daughter.
Upon the publication of her book Rook En Oker he disowned her, saying: “You are a slut, get out of here. I don’t want to ever see you again.”
He was referring to his daughter’s rather liberal approach, at the time, to sexual relations. It was also her involvement with the likes of Afrikaans writer and editor Uys Krige (Graham Clarke), whose work was also banned.
Krige was part of the creative circle of friends and colleagues which included Cope, Eugene Maritz, Andre Brink and Jan Rabie. Of these, Brink is conspicuously absent from the movie. His role in Jonker’s life has been substituted with Maritz’s for narrative convenience.
When she won some literary prize money, which allowed her to finally travel Europe, it was Brink and not Maritz who went with her, though in the film it’s Maritz.
Jonker’s affair with the writer began after she aborted her love child with Cope (Liam Cunningham) who, unaware of her pregnancy, had left her.
Another of her abortions is gruesomely played out during Jonker’s European tour where she is abandoned by Maritz, who returns home to his wife.
These abortions made Simone – Jonker’s daughter from her failed marriage to Pieter Venter – the troubled poet’s only child, and play into the poetic idea of lives that are cut short. Just as her own life was aborted through suicide and cut too short at 31 to have physically lived long enough to form part of the current crop of South African poets. These include Phillippa Yaa De Villiers, who writes out of Joburg and was only 18 years old when she became aware of Jonker’s story.
Speaking on the phone from Durban, where she’s headlining the Poetry Africa International Festival, De Villiers says: “When I was in high school, we heard stories of these women poets and writers who ended their lives – women like Jonker and Sylvia Plath.
“As a teenager I thought they were weak, though I later came to understand that they were geniuses. They were very sensitive people for whom daily life was very difficult to deal with.”
Tshwane-based poet Natalia Molebatsi struggles with historical issues that separate her from Jonker.
She says: “I didn’t really know Jonker when I was growing up. I guess because her work was in Afrikaans and for most black people Afrikaans was the language of violence. We were forced to speak, recite and read in Afrikaans so most people created a wall against the language, and we wanted to learn more in our own languages when we could.”
But Jonker’s problems went way beyond the political. They were personal and emotional. Hence, Molebatsi contends: “Through her troubled soul and her brilliant writing, Jonker transcends the poverty and gender barriers, as well as restrictions about how she was supposed to behave as a white woman [in the apartheid system].”
This system eventually stifled her very will to keep living. Perhaps the movie’s grandest irony is how the fully grown Jonker is introduced.
We see her soon-to-be love interest, Cope, on his customary jog along the beach, he hears the voice of a woman caught in the current and crying for help. It’s Jonker almost drowning and he saves her from the very water she will later use to cut her tormented life short.
» Black Butterflies is currently on circuit