South African poet Ingrid Jonker gets the big screen treatment in Dutch director Paula Van der Oest's literary biopic, Black Butterflies.
Jonker was a passionate and unconventional woman whose poetry challenged the conservative norms of 1960's South Africa. Raised by her grandparents after her mother died in a mental hospital, she first met her father, Abraham Jonker, when she was 11 and, although she & her sister moved in with Abraham, his third wife & their children, their relationship was strained for life.
As a member of the National Party & the national censorship committee, Abraham Jonker's political & conservative ideals constantly clashed with those of his daughter, and she was not afraid to publicly oppose them. He, in turn, disowned her in parliament, and opposed the publication of her poetry. After hearing of her ocean suicide, he reportedly said: 'They can throw her back into the sea for all I care.'
This strained relationship with her father, as well as her affairs with several high profile writers of her time, make up the bulk of Paula Van der Oest's film, although she seems more interested in Jonker's internal yearning for love & security than in the melodramatics of her strained relationships.
Chief among her lovers in the film is Jack Cope, a famous South African writer who tried very hard to understand & love her, but couldn't quite manage to live with her. Cope wrote reams about Jonker in his journals, as he tried to fathom her impulsive nature - including compulsively flirting with any man in sight whenever Cope was around - and it is from his journals that screenwriter Gregg Latter drew most of his insights into Jonker. After Jonker's death, Cope made sure her work lived on through the Ingrid Jonker Trust.
As a poet, Jonker started writing at age 6 and had produced her first collection by 13, although her father would not allow it to be published. Strongly opposed to Apartheid, Jonker was celebrated by Nelson Mandela, who read her poem 'Die kind wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga' (The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga) in Afrikaans at the opening of the first democratically-elected parliament in 1994.
Mandela called her a transcendant Afrikaner woman who became 'a South African and an African'. Not everyone gets to be publically praised by the legendary Madiba.
Dutch actress Carice Van Houten (Black Book) won Best Actress at the Tribecca Film Festival for her portrayal of Jonker. The judges explained their decision as follows: 'There are a million colors in this complicated performance. We award this honor for bravery and fragility, and for showing tremendous range and strength throughout.'
Abraham Jonker is played by Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, best known for his iconic, heart-breaking performance as Roy Batty in Blade Runner, and Jack Cope is played by Irishman Liam Cunningham (The Wind that Shakes the Barley).
Unlike Christine Jeffs' 2003 Syliva Plath biopic, Paula Van Der Oest had full access to Jonker's poetry and, wisely, swathes the film in as much of it as possible.
The verdict is still out on the film itself, but it's always good to see recognition for South African stories, especially ones where poetry beats Apartheid.
Die kind wat doodgeskiet is by Nyaga - poem after the cut:
Die kind wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga
Die kind is nie dood nie
die kind lig sy vuiste teen sy moeder
wat Afrika skreeu skreeu die geur van vryheid en heide
in die lokasies van die omsingelde hart
Die kind lig sy vuiste teen sy vader
in die optog van die generasies
wat Afrika skreeu skreeu die geur
van geregtigheid en bloed
in die strate van sy gewapende trots
Die kind is nie dood nie
nòg by Langa nòg by Nyanga
nòg by Orlando nòg by Sharpville
nòg by die polisiestasie in Philippi
waar hy lê met ‘n koeël deur sy kop
Die kind is die skaduwee van die soldate
op wag met gewere sarasene en knuppels
die kind is teenwoordig by alle vergaderings en wetgewings
die kind loer deur die vensters van huise en in die harte van moeders
die kind wat net wou speel in die son by Nyanga is orals
die kind wat ‘n man geword het trek deur die ganse Afrika
die kind wat ‘n reus geword het reis deur die hele wereld