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Black Butterflies

by Kavish Chetty / 17.08.2011

Did you know that Ingrid Jonker was English*? Me neither, but Black Butterflies mercifully rescued me from this lurid misconception. I can only imagine that her being memorialised as an Afrikaans poet was a nationalist conspiracy on the part of ‘60s-era Afrikaners to reclaim her provocative work as part of their own private heritage. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense too. Why would Jonker have written in Afrikaans? If she did, then most people around the world wouldn’t have been able to understand her poetry without translation. And if her poetry never reached a wider audience, there’d have been less impetus to make Black Butterflies – a toothless Dutch-produced biopic of her life. And, of course, if she was Afrikaans, then the whole of Black Butterflies would have to be in Afrikaans which would make it infinitely less marketable and have subtitles plastered all over the lower half of the screen. No one wants to sit through subtitles. So Ingrid Jonker did director Paula van der Oest a hearty favour by living and writing in the English language. If she didn’t, this film would suffer from some serious political withdrawal from the first Anglophone syllable. Thanks, Ingrid.

That dosage of sarcasm is more than any writer should be permitted half-yearly, so I’ll stem it there. Black Butterflies is another hastily-scribbled sentence on a shopping list of visual biographies which miss the mark entirely; which appear en route to forget the whole reason their subject was worth biographing about in the first place. As with Steven Silver’s The Bang Bang Club which erased seething political tensions to create a semi-cloistered ‘guy-flick’ occurring in a contextless sprawl of violence, so with Black Butterflies. If Jonker had any relevance as a poet to her nation, then it doesn’t surface here. She emerges to us as a flattened figure and archetype: the capricious ‘woman’, the impulsive ‘poet’; the tortured soul caught up in a web of bad relationships which she skirmishes through with the aid of typewriter and whiskey bottle. Jonker comes across as the sort of vexatious asshole-poet you meet at literary parties: that woman who was pre-packaged by social conditions to answer to all the worst excesses of her stereotype. You just want to grab her shoulders before she fires out another salvo of numbing stanzas and say, “okay, can you actually shut the fuck up now, because you’re starting to wear out my nerves?”

Black Butterflies - Rugter Hauer

There are a great many things which have been psychically colonised in the 21st century. So many acts and gestures now have the taint of rehearsal amongst them. How is it possible to say “I love you” in an age in which that’s become Hollywood real-estate? Or buy flowers for your girlfriend when that just seems like a trite re-enactment of romantic dogma? How do you get through the day without succumbing to all the affectations rendered enormously gauche by – in short – “culture”? Poetry, I personally think, is one of the more anachronistic forms to have journeyed through the centuries and survived the threshing and convulsions of history. I’m not saying “poetry” as in writing that sounds “poetic”. I’m not of the conviction that allegory, metaphor and chiasmus need to be exiled. But rather that the – will you permit the phrase? – ‘discursive’ form of poetry has some serious answering to do because, like the catalogue above, it has become by default cheap and colonised. Good poetry is tortuously difficult – and in modern collections and makeshift stages across our country and elsewhere, the things which are pardoned and applauded in all their mastubatory, pretentious exultation I find sickening. Poetry has built into it a discursive threat: the poetic form is something of ‘culture’, so the argument goes, and if you can’t appreciate it, it’s not because the poet herself is an enjambing lunatic, but because you aren’t sophisticated enough.

This digression has a point: to avoid coming across as the lunatic above, your poetry has to have relevance. And in order to demonstrate a relevance in historical terms, you need to adequately sketch context. The mathematics here is simple. Greater political context only hums disinterestedly in the background of Butterflies and hence, Ingrid Jonker becomes just another lunatic poet. If they care so little about her poetry as to not quote it in its original Afrikaans, then clearly they don’t care enough to connect it to something outside her own private life – the external ‘something’ which made her poetry at all important in our history. Jonker’s poetry in this film therefore functions as little more than private catharsis – the way in which she narcissistically navigates her own despairs. She is seen fraternising with the Afrikaans literary scene of the day – she has affairs with Jack Cope and an André Brink surrogate – and they equally come across as being typical literary scene assholes. In one scene I had to laugh out loud when Uys Krige says something like “…the beaudy [sic] of the poem is in the allegory of the bird” in some ridiculous accent which doesn’t mesh with the holy and conceited pursuit of literary criticism. You soon start to tire of Jonker’s incessant capacity to irritate by crying, throwing things at people, being alluringly tragic (bleurgh) and melodramatic (in one scene she runs to the train station to see Jack Cope off. He says, “Shouldn’t you be at work?” She says, “I quit my job to see you off.” Did she not think of calling in sick, or taking the day off? She quit her job to spend less than fifteen seconds saying goodbye to this guy? Someone grab the dictionary and amend the entry to ‘fucking-lunatic’). But just when you’re ready to walk out, they use their regiment of male figures – her father, and the one-dimensional fellow writers and poets – to justify her insanity. They were driving her to it. Get-out-jail-free card. Why bother with complexity when you can cotton on to such a hackneyed motivation for poetry?

Black Butterflies - Liam Cunningham and Carice van Houten

Look, it’s not that politics is absent from this film. It’s most strong when she engages with her father (all too briefly) and when she is haunted by the death of a young boy she witnessed in a moment of township police brutality (all too cheaply dramatised). But her poetry doesn’t connect with politics in explicit ways in the film, and so they don’t work to justify her cultural capital. She becomes just another poet, just another woman living a life of poor choices. Elsewhere, the colours are expectedly muted, the accents are predictably off-key, the sex scenes are anticipatedly artsy. And goddamn me if this isn’t a charmless and boring film, dragged along on spent kilojoules. Knowing already of Jonker’s demise, I personally couldn’t wait for her to kill herself in this film, so I think that it hardly stands as a fitting testimonial to her as a literary figure. And then in a final climax of predictability, they end with a quote by Nelson Mandela. As I think it’s possible to cut out Ingrid Jonker from this film and just turn it into some everyday indie-flick about a tortured poet and her inconsequential poetry, I think this film is just trading on her symbolic power by using her as a mannequin to rattle through some dull heard-before narrative about the domestic traumas of being an inconsolably irritating poet.

* I mean “English” here linguistically, as in speaking and writing in the language.

Black Butterflies

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