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Black Butterflies

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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  1. Anonymous says:

    You sound like a poephol Kavish. Norrrrrtherrrrrn Cape!!!

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  2. bubbahotep says:

    a “lurid” misconception about ingrid jonker would be that she was into midget porn or dancing naked smeared in rendered duck fat. not that she “was English” which really warrants little more than mild surprise.

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  3. Faye says:

    Sarcasm is dangerous because of folk like bubbahotep, who can’t distinguish it.

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  4. Ingrid says:

    All poets are into midget porn. Known fact.

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  5. Kropotkin says:


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  6. J. says:

    Kavish Chetty, while I realise this is a film review and not a write-up about the actual poet, I just want to tell you that you’re an ignorant bastard. The following sentence you wrote made my blood boil: ” 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.”
    Jonker and other 60s Afrikaans poets and writers were whole-heartedly against the conservative Afrikanerdom of their time: Google “Die Sestigers”, asshole.
    Also, why should she not have written in her mother tongue ? In what kind of monocultural sphere are you floating in?

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  7. Anonymous says:

    This is a sucky review of enormous proportions! It’s a movie try enjoy yourself!

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  8. Anonymous says:

    Most probably the woman was a bit of a fuck-up and that is why she got into kak situations that resulted in raw emotions that were captured in great poems, most great artists in history were probably fuck-ups in their era, but we didn’t know them – we just know their work. I doubt whether the tortured soul/fuck-up stereotype was already established back then… The problem is these intellectuals who’ve fucked up art – replacing emotion with concept. Lots of the words & phrases you use in your review sound like the typical kak that all art students spew nowadays – are you all quoting from the same textbook? Did Vincent van Gogh have any idea about semiotics or vanitas or whatever? So the movie might be true to who this Ingrid woman was – a fuck-up who wrote good poems?

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  9. Roger Young says:

    Sheesh, @Anoz, was this review shared on the News24 network? Is that how you stumbled onto it?

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  10. Andy says:

    wowzers that sarcasm really tripped up a lot of people… even the mighty Bubba Hotep

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  11. piper says:

    @ the two anonymouses and J,

    Fuck me, you okes are retarded. if you bothered to read the first sentence of the second paragraph, you might’ve ended up not sounding so stupid. actually, the fact that you even would have needed that clarifier (you couldn’t figure out it was sarcasm based on the inordinately sarcastic tone?!!!) would make you dumb by anyone’s standards. fuck’s sake. get an education and then come back.

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  12. Shinnok says:

    Yeah, you Mahala commenters have reached a new all-time low with this display of idiocy. I love the fact that (occasionally) Mahala has interesting, eloquent, articulate articles, but the stupidity on the comment boards is always the same.

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  13. sam says:

    This piece has some lucid, interesting moments; but it also digresses into a bit of an intellectual wank in par 2. And as for that opening line? Silly and completely misleading, even with the asterixed annotation. Sure it hooks the reader, but c’mon!

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  14. Bindi says:

    “the things which are pardoned and applauded in all their mastubatory, pretentious exultation I find sickening”
    This made me laugh.
    Very similar to Lindokuhle Nkosi’s “Spoken Turd” a while ago where poetry was described as “that impotent solace of the self-absorbed.”
    I think you did a great job of underhandedly exalting her work by showing that not poets are self-absorbed, the importance of context blah blah. Sarcastically blasting the film, even if it was kak, shouldnt have been the only way to do this though.
    All that junk about sarcasm being the lowest form of wit certainly applies here.
    You’re a brilliant writer, self-deprecating sarcasm is below you dude.

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  15. Ingrid says:

    Does anyone have some midget porn?

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  16. fobias says:

    Why is everyone bitching about the first paragraph? Sarcasm has a bad rap because of this platitude going around that “sarcasm is the dullest form of wit”. It’s an opinion, hardly a mathematical proof, and I can think of excesses of wit which are lower than sarcasm. In fact, sarcasm is the first order of irony, and the inability to recognise irony, or be self-conscious about its possibilities have always lent themselves to a robbed, cuckolded wit far inferior to the sarcastic.

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  17. jacqui says:

    i still like ingrid jonker…not so sure about the midget porn though.

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  18. Anonymous says:

    go jump in a lake…or the sea

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  19. Anonymous says:

    I haven’t seen the movie but the trailer makes it look to be exactly as you describe. Looking forward to seeing it to see if your review holds true. Brilliant writing Kavish.

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  20. Jiki says:

    Thanks for a great review. Guess I will give it a miss cos I too care about her life, her poetry and her death. Verity is hard to come by on the big screen but if they could do it for edith they can do it with ingrid.

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  21. Kian says:

    Kavish your racist reviews of films with Afrikaner related subjectmatter is becoming a bit predictable.

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  22. Yikes! says:

    Strange that this film won Best Film, Best Actress and Best Editor at the Dutch Film Festival….. can it really be as bad as Kavish makes out? Unless all the films at the Dutch Film Festival were unadulterated kak…

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  23. Megan says:

    Why are all the comments about the review (so convoluted nobody can tell the difference between sarcasm and arrogance) and not about the fliek? I saw it last night and I thought, on the whole, it was pretty good, even in English. It doesn’t fall into the trap of the usual politically fraught, message driven apartheid apologists. The performances are really good, convincing and engaging, and the styling (except for the live band) is fantastic.

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  24. Michael Auret says:

    As a producer of the film, “Black Butterflies” I have waited for the film to release and to read all of the reviews before responding to this one. Firstly the film is not a “Dutch produced” film, but rather a German/Dutch/South African production with Spier Films being the South African producer. Since I personally put a year of my life in the film and the South African writer, Greg Latter put in more than 5 years and the South African crew and cast put a huge amount of themselves into the production of the film, it would be nice if at least you could get your facts straight. The film was also 1/3 financed by Spier Films in South Africa.

    I am not going to try to answer the review as some of it is childish, some just intellectual riffing/masturbation which Kavish is entitled to, I am sure, but sometimes there are valid opinions and points of view that I can leave to stand against other views. So I think the other reviews of the film to date, which you will find at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Black-Butterflies/291905417506153?sk=wall, do well in proposing a different view to Kavish and as a result I will leave you to be the judge once you have all watched the film.

    By way of justification for the lack of Afrikaans in the film I will say this. Film is expensive to produce, and when one has non-hollywood subject matter one has to ensure that the film has as many possibilities of reaching a global audience as possible. So far this film has sold to 14 territories covering nearly 100 countries across the world. This would not have happened if it had been in Afrikaans because many territories just do not buy non-english language product unless it is highly commercial.

    Unfortunately the local box office for a film about a poet is tiny and could not have justified a film as beautiful as this one with actors of this calibre.

    The fact is that very few people in South Africa let alone the world knew the life and poetry of Ingrid Jonker and now she and her poetry will be known across the world, in the context of a film which has won numerous awards, moved many to tears, and in general has been overwhelmingly well received. The film is holding steady at the South African box office and has had a good response from the audiences watching it.

    We do understand that for the local market the lack of Afrikaans is a real problem and we are looking into the possibilities of an Afrikaans version for the DVD release.

    So Kavish you are entitled to what I think, thankfully, is a minority opinion. I am sure some people appreciate your “wit” but I think I can speak on behalf of everyone who worked on the film in saying we are not awaiting your next pearls of wisdom with bated breath. Be sure to let us know, however, if you ever do something more significant with your life than this because I am sure that if it is ever worth bothering about, we will want to return the favour.

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  25. Michael Auret says:

    OK – I have now read lots of your other reviews and admittedly some of them are pretty good and generally vastly more interesting than most South African reviews. So in the interests of supporting more entertaining or interesting film criticism I will probably look up your next review.

    I still think your review of “Black Butterflies” is a little bit histrionic, though, and presents an unnecessarily negative representation of the film but so be it, that’s your license.

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  26. Chris says:

    @Michael Auret

    “Be sure to let us know, however, if you ever do something more significant with your life than this”

    Cheap dig in a weak ploy to win back an audience.
    Your team had its chance to speak.
    For 100 minutes in fact.

    Getting catty with critics is unprofessional and makes you look like a dick

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  27. Michael Auret says:

    Black Butterflies played for 10 weeks in South Africa and has sold in 13 territories covering 100 countries worldwide.

    It has won the following awards:

    Tribeca 2011

    Best Actress Carice Van Houten

    2012 SAFTAs ( South African Film and Television Awards)

    Best Picture
    Best Cinematography
    Best Composer
    Best Production Design
    Best Make up
    Nest Hair

    Nominated for
    Best Sound Design
    Best Supporting Actress – Jennifer Steyn

    2011 Golden Calves – Netherlands Film Awards
    Best Film
    Best Actress – Carice Van Houten
    Best Editing

    Nominated for:
    Best Director

    Audience Award at the Taormina Film Festival 2011

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  28. Michael Auret says:

    t is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
    Delivered at the Sorbonne, in Paris, France on 23 April, 1910 by Theodore Roosevelt.

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  29. Anonymous says:

    In 2007 Andre P. Brink and Antjie Krog translated a collection of Ingrid Jonker’s poems under the title Black Butterflies. You may currently be under a misconception thinking the poems were originally English..??

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  30. Michael Auret says:

    No we were not – we had both the English and Afrikaans versions, however, it is extremely difficult to sell Afrikaans films internationally and thus, because of the small SA market, you can only finance a film of the scale of “Black Butterflies” in English.

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