Dateline: Cape Town, South Africa, under Apartheid, the 1960s. Racial segregation enforced by the National Party government of South Africa, under which the rights of the majority ‘non-white’ inhabitants of South Africa were curtailed, while minority “white” rule was maintained.
What struck me most about Black Butterflies were all the displays of luxury and opulence, the kind of which I rarely see represented in films about South Africa.
Not that I’m so ignorant, stupid or naive to think that this kind of lavishness and abundance doesn’t exist in any part of South Africa, but, the point is, we here in the west, rarely are exposed to these kinds of depictions of that country. Images of poverty, sickness, violence, chaos and death dominate, often meant to evoke empathy and sympathy, drawing attention to a particular cause, which I believe speaks to a larger issue of representation of countries in Africa, to those of us on the outside, and how/why only certain very specific narratives seem to prevail.
The film centers on the rather turbulent life of iconic white South African poet Ingrid Jonker (1933 – 1965). Often called the South African Sylvia Plath, her poems have been widely translated into other languages. It takes place in a world of an almost constantly shining sun, beautiful sandy beaches, and divine beachfront estates with black maids, cooks, butlers and other groundsmen in tow, where acclaimed liberal writers converge routinely to drink wine, eat delectable dishes, and discuss literature, poetry, and the tumultuous times in which they existed – turmoil that they are mostly segregated from. The ongoing violent battle for equal rights all seems miles away from the world in which the film takes place, as we are shown repeated images of these men and woman, sitting on rear porches overlooking bright blue skies and clear sandy beaches – afforded the luxury of writing in silence and bliss.
All that to say the Apartheid struggle is mostly a backdrop here so don’t expect much exploration of that particular terrain in Black Butterflies; that’s simply not its focus; Ingrid Jonker and her immediate circle are. And maybe that’s perfectly OK, given what I said in paragraphs above about what Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie called “the danger of a single story.”
Not that the film takes place entirely in a bubble; it doesn’t. From the little I gathered about Ingrid Junker, a strong-willed, rebellious writer/poet of the bohemian set, rejected by her powerful father, the Minister of Censorship in the Apartheid regime at the time (you can imagine how conflicted the father/daughter relationship is here), referred to as a communist at least once during the course of the film, she was very much on the side of the oppressed, and her poetry became a voice for the internal injustices and inhumanities of the racist country she called home. We are witness to occasional scenes of violence against and resistance by blacks, but we see these conflicts essentially through Jonker’s eyes, as, again, it is her story, who, along with one of her many lovers, encourage and assist in the escape to Europe of a black South African writer named Nkosi, whom I believe, my research tells me, is likely Lewis Nkosi, a notable writer and essayist – a name I wasn’t immediately familiar with.
As the lens is focused squarely on Jonker, as portrayed quite well by Dutch actress Carice Van Houten, your appreciation for the film will be determined by your appreciation for the character at its center. And to put it simply, she was what you’d call a tortured soul, and, from the how director Paula Van Der Oest chose to portray her here, selfish, self-destructive, and just not the most pleasant human being to be associated with, as she seemed to bring much more anguish than pleasure to those who were near and dear to her – men especially, lovers like then acclaimed author Jack Cope, who repeatedly opened their hearts and minds to her, acquiescing to her demands, despite the frustrating, distressing influence she seemed to be on their lives. As Cope once says to her, “Ingrid, you drain me,” as he suggests some respite from their relationship.
I actually felt what he felt in that moment, watching the film.
Yes, she was definitely what you could call a force, unashamed, unabashed, sexually uninhibited, challenging societal norms, all of which at the time, the 1960s, was likely something of a shock to most and off-putting to some, given that all those traits were embodied by a woman.
As already noted, hers was a Bohemian style of living and loving, and I certainly appreciated much of that depiction of her; however, repeating what I said earlier, Oest, whether intentional or not, portrays Junker as a rather unlikable person. I wasn’t familiar with the poet before seeing the film, so I can’t say how true-to-life my interpretation of the director’s depiction of her is. I do know that it was difficult for me to fully empathize with this self-centered, self-destructive, mercurial, even manipulative human being. And that in turn challenged my appreciation for the film itself, to be frank.
And when she kills herself in the end (it’s in the history books, so I’m not revealing any spoilers here), it felt like a final grand act of the kind of egotism that seemed to dominate how she lived her life. It didn’t feel earned, if that makes sense.
What kept me most engaged were the mostly strong performances from the cast, and the beautiful cinematography. Also, as maybe a nod to the idea that some of the best art is born out of the most chaotic lives, Jonkers’ beautifully written, real-life poems were also scattered throughout the film, mostly spoken – notably the famous The Child Was Shot Dead By Soldiers In Nyanga, which she wrote after witnessing the violent act summarized in the poem’s title, and which was read by Nelson Mandela during his first address in the new South African parliament in 1994, almost 30 years after Jonker’s death.
I should add that it’s not a strict biopic, as it focuses on specific years of Jonker’s adult life, through her death; as director Oest notes, the goal was to move away “from a strict biopic and veering from a politically drive “apartheid” narrative,”” choosing instead to make a film that “probes into the kinds and emotions” of Jonker, the woman, mother, lover, writer.
The film, which costars Liam Cunningham, and Rutger Hauer as Jonker’s powerful, bigoted father, is currently available on demand and begins an exclusive engagement at Cinema Village in New York City this weekend.