Black Butterflies is the tumultuous life story of South African poet Ingrid Jonker who struggled desperately to gain the love of the men in her life. Her father (played by Rutger Hauer) was an official in the apartheid government who censored work like Ingrid’s and felt she was an embarrassment to him. The two of them disagreed on politics and she could never get past the fact that he was never going to agree with and support her work. She also seemed to fall in love with inappropriate men and the love of her life novelist Jack Cope (Liam Cunningham) served as a father figure/lover, and while they loved each other deeply Ingrid had many deep demons that hounded her and their relationship deteriorated. Carice Van Houten gives a very intense and penetrating portrait of a delicate and incredibly talented female artist who just had a very difficult time surviving and after one too many betrayals by her father she no longer was able to continue.
Women and Hollywood sat down with Paula van der Oest in Amsterdam on the eve of her trip to NY (last year) for the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Women and Hollywood: Could you please talk a little about what drew you to the script.
Paula van der Oest: What drew me to the script was a combination of a woman in a very remarkable era in South Africa, and the relationship between Ingrid Jonker and her father. Also I knew her poetry because a friend of mine made a documentary film about her. So I was already familiar with it and I knew her poems in South African which is even more beautiful but we chose to make the film in English so that the movie could be available for the whole world. So her poetry in combination with her turbulent and sad life, those ingredients made me think I could make a very good film out of this.
WaH: The press notes said that after you came on board the film shifted from a political story to a more of a character piece.
PvdO: Actually when I came on board it was more a love story between Ingrid and Jack Cope and the political environment in the country was always more of a background story. It works on a metaphorical level because her father represents apartheid because he is on the censorship board and she is the free spirited person, the artist someone who doesn’t feel the boundaries of politics. Ingrid Jonker chose not to feel restricted by politics. On the other hand you can’t deny it. It’s South Africa, it’s the sixties. Apartheid defines everybody in the country. The reason why I chose the politics it to be more of a background story is that in reality they were not political activists. Their activism was more underground. They were helping their artist friends, publishing articles — everything was forbidden. Apartheid was a very cruel system in which all the black people were gradually pushed out of society. There is a fantastic museum in Johannesburg showing the implications of apartheid and how they did it law by law. So it would be perverse to deny it, but it is not the main focus of the film.
WaH: Talk a little bit about the title and what the means.
PvdO: Black Butterflies is a line in one of her poems. Also from early times it’s not that she flirted with death but she had a feeling that she would maybe die earlier than most people.
WaH: How did you manage to get such amazing performances from your actors?
PvdO: First of all they are good actors. What I like most about directing is working with the actors. I like to spend time with them and get the best out of them. It’s merely talking about who the character is and what is she going through; where is she in the big arc of the character and the film. That’s what we call rehearsing but it is more sitting at a table and drinking a glass of wine and talking. I spent as much time as possible with the actors trying to get at that. Carice is someone who really likes to know exactly what’s happening inside and if she knows exactly how to play it she can let go. So we did a lot of analyzing of the lines and scenes. And she said, I am very difficult now but it will save you time at shooting because we will know exactly what we want for the scene. I think I can see quite well what actors are thinking. Maybe that’s something I discovered after a couple of features — that I can see what they are doing and I can ask or help or guide to make it as layered as possible together with the actor. It’s always together with the actor.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge of directing this film?
PvdO: I found it hard to direct a film about a woman who is not immediately sympathetic and easy to watch. That was also Carice’s concern and I think she finally managed to make her difficult and sensitive and moving and vulnerable at the same time. It’s the whole package to make her real and human and to be able to identify with her. And the other thing is that she was a real icon in South Africa. Everybody knew Ingrid Jonker especially after Nelson Mandela read her poem (at his inauguration). So as a foreigner I came to South Africa to make a film in another language with an actress not from South Africa and I’m doing their Ingrid Jonker. So I felt quite responsible and I still don’t know how they will feel about it. We will have the premiere in South Africa this summer. That will be quite exciting.
WaH: What do you want people to get out of the film?
PvdO: A couple of different things. Meeting a so far unknown poet, learning something about an era in South Africa that was horrible. I think it’s good to have a consciousness for new generations. We (the Dutch) have a very strong relationship with South Africa because we went there and the reason why the South Africans speak this beautiful language is because it is a form of developed Dutch. I hope they are moved by a special character, a woman that was remarkable that had a difficult life.
WaH: How did you know you wanted to become a director?
PvdO: When I was doing it. When I was directing actors. I went to the film academy when I was quite young. I was always writing but I didn’t know what to do with it. I had a teacher in high school who said maybe you should go to the film academy. And it’s funny because after I graduated he applied to film school himself. Now they have separate classes for script writing, directing and editing. When I was there I wrote my own scripts. I started directing and I felt yes, this is what I should do. I did a lot of assistant directing jobs watching, and my husband at the time was a theatre director so I watched a lot of theatre rehearsal processes. The acting is what attracts me most to the job.