Black Butterflies

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Black Butterflies
Film poster
Directed byPaula van der Oest
Produced byFrans van Gestel
Richard Claus
Arry Voorsmit
Michael Auret
Written byGreg Latter (script)
StarringCarice van Houten
Rutger Hauer
Liam Cunningham
Release date
  • 31 March 2011 (2011-03-31)
Running time
110 minutes

Black Butterflies is a Dutch film about the life of South-African poet Ingrid Jonker. The film was directed by Paula van der Oest and premiered in the Netherlands on February 6 before being released on 31 March 2011. Although Jonker spoke and wrote in Afrikaans and the film is a Dutch production, the film is spoken in English.


As the movie opens, Ingrid and Anna Jonker are living in a seaside shack with their elderly grandmother.

One night, Anna rushes into the bedroom and tells Ingrid that their Grandmother is not breathing. As her body is carried away in a hearse,the wealthy Abraham Jonker (Rutger Hauer) arrives and expresses shock that the girls have no shoes. When Anna asks what they are to call him, Abraham replies, "Call me 'Pa.'"

Decades later, in 1960, an adult Ingrid (Carice van Houten), is swimming against the ocean current when she starts to go under. Hearing her cries, a man on shore (Liam Cunningham) spontaneously dives into the water to save her. As the reach the shore, he introduces himself as the novelist Jack Cope. Overjoyed, Ingrid says that she read his novel. Looking shamefaced, Cope asks how she liked it. She replies that his novel saved her life and introduces herself to Cope, who is stunned to realize that she is, "the poet Ingrid Jonker."

Moments later, her sister Anna interrupts and says that their father is waiting for her. In his car, Abraham tells Ingrid that her estranged husband, Pieter, has asked for a ride to her house. When Ingrid gripes that she and Pieter have nothing in common, Abraham replies, "You married him."

Inside the lodgings Ingrid shares with Anna and her infant daughter, Pieter pleads for another chance. Then, Cope calls to invite her to a party with his friends. Spurning Pieter's pleas, Ingrid goes to the party.

Moments later, a Black writer arrives and laments that the Censorship Board has banned his unpublished novel and that the police have confiscated the manuscript. He laments that four years of his life have gone to waste.

As Cope and Ingrid drive the writer to the black township of Nyanga, the writer secretly tells Cope that Ingrid's father is the head of the Censorship Board and is the man who banned his novel. Cope responds that he thinks that Ingrid isn't like her father.

Back at Cop's flat, he tells Ingrid that he has two children and is going through a very ugly divorce. Ingrid shows him a poem that she had written in his honor and Cope is reduced almost to tears. When he asked why she wrote it, Ingrid says that his novel saved her life. Soon after,they are shown to have become lovers.

Soon after, Cope tells Ingrid that he is madly in love with her and asks her and her daughter to move in with him. Overjoyed, she accepts

It is passionate and they are deeply in love. But Jack refuses to marry her. He doesn't say why (perhaps it is her attractions to, and flirtatious ways with, other men when she professes love to Jack [her sexual liberation before the sexual revolution]; perhaps it is how all consuming their passionate love and lovemaking is so that Jack finds himself unable to write [he says being with Ingrid "drains him"] though Ingrid's poems seem to keep flowing). He announces he will visit his two sons for 2 or 3 months (which will also include seeing their mother, who is still his wife, since his divorce from her was not yet finalized; the visit is partly so that he can start writing again). Ingrid is distraught at their being apart for so long and begs him not to go. At the train when he departs she begs him yet again not go to or to take her with him.

It turns out that Ingrid was pregnant with Jack's child, though he did not know. While he is gone, she has an abortion. After he has been gone some time, Ingrid receives a phone call from him where she learns that he will be away for another month. In her sadness and anger at that news, she seduces a young writer (called Eugene Maritz in the movie and played by Nicholas Pauling, though in real life the writer's name was André Brink). In the movie, Eugene was a huge fan of Ingrid's poetry, and the playwright, Uys Krige (played by Graham Clarke), had just lauded Eugene as a huge new literary talent. When Jack returns, he finds a pair of Eugene's shoes in his closet, and kicks Ingrid out, though she comes back into his life many more times though only once more as his lover.

A pivotal scene in the movie (and in Ingrid's real life, though there it occurred much later there) is when Ingrid and Jack witness the police shoot into a car, killing a black child. This leads to Ingrid's famous poem, Die Kind, which is alluded to multiple times in the movie; a recording of Nelson Mandela's reading of it in his address to the first democratically elected parliament is played at the end of the film. A subtext running throughout the film is apartheid, its horrors, Ingrid and Jack's opposition to it, but Ingrid father's strong, unwavering support of it. Ingrid's father was Chair of the parliamentary select committee responsible for censorship laws on art, publications and entertainment. He is a cold, formal, tyrannical man, who never shows Ingrid any affection. He is grieved and embarrassed by Ingrid's opposition to his political views, support of writers whose work he has censored from publication, and her own writings. At one point in the movie she asks him to read a poem she is particularly proud of; he reads most of the beautiful poem out loud, but is unable to stomach reading the whole poem and rips it up.

His rejections of his daughter throughout her life are extremely hard on her, and make her later rejections by Jack and Eugene also particularly hard on her. At one point her sadness and depression land her in Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital (where her mother had died several years earlier.) When Jack visits her there he learns for the first time that she had been pregnant with his child. It is a very moving scene. He asks why she had not told him. She says she tried to but if she had he would have married her (and unsaid but understood: she would not have wanted him to marry her for that reason though she had very much wanted him to marry her). Ingrid also tells him that they have taken all her poems away. Jack looks through the box of her possessions that the hospital has and finds a whole pocketbook stuffed full of poems Ingrid had written. He takes them. Jack and Uys cannot get over how good the poems are and stay up day and night feverishly working to compile them into a book for publication. Out of the hospital, Ingrid is thrilled when the book gets accepted by a publisher and dedicates the book to Jack and Uys. The book gets extraordinarily positive reviews, gets nominated for an extremely prestigious award (called the APB award in the movie), wins that award, and as part of winning that, Ingrid gets to go to Europe for the first time. (That book was Rook en oker and the prize was the Afrikaans Press-Booksellers literary prize.) Ingrid goes to see her father in his government office to tell him the wonderful news about the huge honor she has just received and to ask her father if he would accompany her to receive it, saying it would mean a great deal to her. Her father does not congratulate her, informs her he already knew about the award, he saw nothing good in the book, had wanted to ban it and only had not done so because colleagues argued it would cause too much of a scandal, and to top it all off informs her he never wants to see her again.

Ingrid would have liked Jack to accompany her to Europe, and he would have, but the government would not issue him a passport because of his anti-apartheid views and advocacy. So Ingrid invites Eugene to accompany her, which he does. During the trip he finds her writing a poem that states how much she loves Jack, which understandably hurts and upsets him; he announces he will be returning to South Africa soon. Ingrid's depression leads her to try to take her own life. The hospital in Europe calls her father to ask for permission to give Ingrid electroconvulsive shock therapy. He gives his permission. That essentially ends her life because after that she is no longer able to write (whereas throughout the entire movie she had written prolifically throughout her life since childhood) and she is expressionless, never smiling again (whereas throughout most of the movie she had been brimming over with life and strong emotions). Before she commits suicide by walking into the ocean, she goes over to Jack's home and brings him her AFB medal along with a moving poem she had just written to Jack about her love for him and taking her life.



It holds a score of 73% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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