Black Butterflies, film on South African poetess Ingrid Jonker


This video is the trailer of the film Black Butterflies.

Today, I saw the film Black Butterflies.

The theme of the film is the life of South African anti-Apartheid poetess Ingrid Jonker (1933-1965).

Dutch actress Carice van Houten plays her in the movie.

Ingrid’s father, Abraham H. Jonker is played by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. As the film is in English, English native speakers play most other roles. South African actor Nicholas Pauling plays one of two lovers of Ingrid Jonker in the film: his role in the film is called Eugene Maritz. The Maritz role is based on well known Afrikaans language South African author André Brink. Ingrid‘s other lover, English language South African author Jack Cope, is played by Liam Cunningham from Ireland.

The title of the film, Black Butterflies, is based on a line from Jonker’s poetry. Not the line from the poem about “brown butterflies” from her volume Rook en Oker.

The title is from this poem, As jy weer skryf:

Onthou

Om in my oë te sien

Die son wat ek nou vir altyd bedek

Met swart vlinders

Translation:

Remember
To see in my eyes
The sun which I will now cover for ever
With black butterflies

Ingrid’s poems in the film are in English translation, not in her Afrikaans. A bit of a problem, since most translations of poems are not as good as the originals.

The Afrikaans speakers in South Africa in the mid-twentieth century were not a monolith. Some were rich, some were poor. Some believed in white supremacy, some did not. Some believed in narrow-minded nationalism. Some were interested in international new tendencies in art, literature, and social criticism in the world outside South Africa.

All those rifts in Afrikaner society ran straight through the Jonker family. Father Abraham lived comfortably as a (pro-Apartheid) National Party politician. His two daughters Anna and Ingrid from his first marriage, which had ended in divorce, grew up in dire poverty. After Ingrid’s maternal grandmother, who had cared for the girls, died, the daughters went to their father’s house. In the film, when Abraham met Anna and Ingrid, he asked “Where are your shoes?” “We don’t have any shoes”. Abraham hated his first marriage daughters because of their poverty. They had to live in the (black African) servants’ quarters of the house.

Ingrid hated her father’s party’s apartheid policies, and wrote much more avant-gardistically than her conservative father liked. Meanwhile, the oppression of the apartheid regime became worse and worse. Ingrid Jonker wrote her most famous poem on soldiers killing a black African child during a demonstration against racially discriminatory laws. Meanwhile, her father’s job included censoring anti-regime literature. Including his own daughter’s work.

Life with apartheid getting worse, her father whom she tried to love but who hated her, and her love life getting tied in insoluble knots because of staight-laced views on women and sexuality, got more and more unbearable for Ingrid Jonker. This drove her to drinking and smoking which did not help. Finally, life became completely unlivable for Ingrid Jonker, and she took her own life by drowning herself in the sea near Cape Town.

Black Butterflies film poster

Of course, within the time frame of a film of 100 minutes one cannot explain all sides of a poetic life of 32 years. One aspect of why Ms Jonker finally committed suicide was the role of religion in South Africa. Calvinist Protestantism was the establishment religion, used to bolster apartheid and anti-communism. While Ingrid Jonker’s grandmother had given her granddaughter a deeply Christian, but non racist education. Abraham Jonker in the film calls his daughter a “slut” for sexual relationships outside marriage; while he himself divorced five times. Again, the hypocrisy of apartheid South Africa running straight through a family. Finally, more than Ingrid Jonker could bear.

Abraham Jonker banned Ingrid’s literary fellow rebels from her funeral (again, not included in the film). However, her poetry lives on. For instance, in the first speech by newly elected President Nelson Mandela, quoting Ingrid Jonker in the first democratically elected South African parliament in 1994. Mandela quoting this Afrikaans poetess is the final part of the film.

Another review of this film is here.

11 thoughts on “Black Butterflies, film on South African poetess Ingrid Jonker

  1. I agree with you on the issue of the language in the film. I find it so sad that the poetry in the film is not in Afrikaans. It would have done such justice to have them like that with the translation in sub titles . . . Nevertheless a beautiful movie.

    Like

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