Jonker’s wild spirit captured

2011-10-22 00:00

AMONG the new movies in Durban this week is the Dutch-made Black Butterflies, which tells the story of one of South Africa’s most revered poets, Ingrid Jonker.

Set in turbulent 1960s Apartheid South Africa, Black Butterflies, which premiered at the Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) earlier this year, is revealed through Jonker’s brilliant writing and her relationships with her daughter, Simone, and other writers, including Jack Cope.

While Jonker’s fragile emotional and mental state ultimately led to her death by suicide, her work remains as a testament to her life and was even quoted by former president Nelson Mandela during his first address in the new South African parliament on May 24, 1994.

After reading from Jonker’s Die kind wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga (The child shot by soldiers at Nyanga) he described her as “an Afrikaner woman who transcended a particular experience and became a South African, an African and a citizen of the world … In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted by death, she asserted the beauty of life.”

Simone Jonker believes the poem Mandela read and his speech made more people aware of her mother’s work. “There are people who have her poems tattooed on their backs, people who say that her poems mean more than the verses in the Bible and even those who say she speaks to them from the grave.”

That reading and speech also made Dutch producer Arry Voorsmit interested in Jonker.

“Then we saw a documentary on Dutch television and came to realise how special, how important, idiosyncratic, individual and unique she was,” Voorsmit said.

It took the producer another eight years to bring Black Butterflies to the screen, and thanks to its Cape locations, attention to detail and a script by South African Gregg Latter (Goodbye Bafana, Forgiveness), it is a stunning film.

To write it, Latter drew on Cope’s papers and journals, which are with Jonker’s at the National English Literary Museum in Grahamstown.

“Jack was the kind of guy who wrote a page a day. I sat there reading his inner most feelings about Ingrid — I couldn’t have had a better insight into her even 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,” Latter said.

That spirit is captured in a seeringly honest performance by Carice van Houten and makes Black Butterlies well worth seeing.

• arts@witness.co.za

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