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Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | “Black Butterflies” Director Paula Van Der Oest

Meet the 2011 Tribeca Filmmakers | "Black Butterflies" Director Paula Van Der Oest

Poetry, politics, madness, and desire collide in the true story of the woman hailed as South Africa’s Sylvia Plath. In 1960s Cape Town, as Apartheid steals the expressive rights of blacks and whites alike, young Ingrid Jonker (Carice van Houten, “Black Book”) finds her freedom scrawling verse while frittering through a series of stormy affairs. Amid escalating quarrels with her lovers and her rigid father, a parliament censorship minister (Rutger Hauer), the poet witnesses an unconscionable event that will alter the course of both her artistic and personal lives.

Ravishing cinematography by Giulio Biccari and a classical approach to dramatic storytelling by consummate Dutch filmmaker Paula van der Oest augment van Houten’s magnetic central performance in “Black Butterflies.” As a woman governed by equal parts genius and mercurial gloom, Jonker could inspire passion but never, it seems, love—a sad truth critically conveyed by van Houten. Jonker’s inner turmoil mirrored her country’s upheaval, but van der Oest is never heavy-handed with her parallels of the poet and the South African maelstrom happening around her: The relationships in the film are a lens through which to view a cultural zeitgeist, but the people always have center stage, not the politics. [Synopsis courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival]

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Tribeca Narrative, Documentary and Viewpoints sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

“Black Butterflies”
World Narrative Competition
Primary Cast: Carice van Houten, Liam Cunningham, Rutger Hauer
Director(s): Paula van der Oest
Screenwriter: Greg Latter
Producer(s): Frans van Gestel, Richard Claus, Michael Auret, Arry Voorsmit
Editor: Sander Vos
Director of Photography: Giulio Biccari
Production Designer: Darryl Hammer
Composer: Philip Miller

Responses courtesy of “Black Butterflies” director Paula Van Der Oest.

Telling stories with a new medium…

I’m from a small village in the east of the country. The closest cinema was ten miles away and so my first love was literature. I was always writing. More or less by coincidence, I was selected for the film academy. When I started directing, I immediately felt it was exactly what I wanted to do. Everything came together. I love the set. I love working with the heads of departments. I love working with actors and trying to get the best out of them. I still tell stories, but now with the help of many people…

Discovering Ingrid Jonker…

Years ago, I saw a Dutch documentary about the life of Ingrid Jonker. She is a well-known poet in South Africa who became world famous when Nelson Mandela read her poem “The child that was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga” at the opening of the first democratically elected parliament in 1994. The producer of that documentary developed a script for a feature film and approached me. I was immediately taken by the script. Ingrid Jonker was a great poet, but also a remarkable person – free spirited, sensitive, sexy and with a turbulent love life. But what struck me most was that she didn’t get the only thing she wanted most in life, the love and recognition of her father. Her father was a member of the Apartheid government and active in the censorship board. Although he must have known how talented she was, he could never show any approval. It finally killed her.

We approached the most talented actress in the Netherlands, Carice van Houten. She loved the story and she loved the part. Also, Rutger Hauer came on board. Rutger and Carice are the only two international movie stars in the Netherlands, and they played together in my film, which was fantastic. The talented Liam Cunningham joined the cast, playing Ingrid’s love of her life, Jack Cope, the writer.

In 2008, I went to South Africa for the first time, to visit all the places Ingrid had lived and been, and talked to people who had known her. We shot the film last year entirely in South Africa (even the Amsterdam scenes). It was a very creative and inspiring shooting period.

Developing a style…

First of all, I wanted the audience to be as close to Ingrid as possible. I wanted them to go along with the main character, even when she’s unreasonable or behaves in an extreme way. My first goal when I direct is always to make the characters real, layered and human. So the actors and I worked hard to get things as clear as possible. Then there was the poetry. Nature plays an important role in the poetry of Ingrid Jonker. The ingredients of the poems were a fantastic inspiration and guideline for the photography and images that amplify the story.

The film was shot entirely in South Africa, with a complete South African crew. Everyone in South Africa knows of Ingrid Jonker and read her poems in school. It was fantastic to work with a costume designer and productions designer who had a lot of knowledge of the subject and whose rooms where full of pictures of the Sixties in South Africa. We decided that, although the film is a period piece, we wanted to have a ”modern” look. The DP, Giulio Biccari, is a very sensitive person. The camera is always close, intimate and often handheld to make things less perfect, showing the overwhelming beauty of nature.

Greatest challenges?

First of all, it took years to finance the film. A film about a South African poet, even in a subsidized cultural climate, is a very difficult thing to realize. It took ten years to make. Apart from that, I felt an immense responsibility. Ingrid Jonker is an icon in South Africa. I had to do justice to her story.

Art imitates life…

The beaches around Cape Town are not what they used to be in the Sixties, when Jack Cope had his house on the beach of Clifton. There’s a lot of tourism now, and a lot of buildings everywhere. We finally found one beach, Llandudno, where we were allowed to build the Clifton beach bungalow on top of the life savers hut. One time, an older couple came by, and they were struck because the house reminded them so much of earlier times. People from the neighborhood expressed their wish that the house would stay, because it gave the beach such an idyllic look.

Ingrid Jonker’s daughter, Simone Jonker, visited the set every now and then. Simone had a very difficult life after the death of her mother. For years, she was addicted to drugs and had trouble surviving. But she recovered and is doing well. She was struck when she saw Carice van Houten transformed into Ingrid. In one nightclub scene, she was an extra. Carice and Simone where chatting at the lunch table, and when Carice had to go back to the set, Simone said: “Don’t go away, mummy!” It was painful but also a compliment. Carice really became Ingrid Jonker, even for Ingrid’s own daughter.

Upcoming films…

I’m working on the post-production of “The Domino Effect,” a film about the recession, shot in the US, London, China, India, South Africa and the Netherlands. I shot it before “Black Butterflies,” but the film itself had financial trouble so things got delayed. I’m finishing it in the next months. I’m looking for another English language film to direct because I love working with international actors, and I think it’s time to broaden my horizons.

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