South Africa’s Sylvia Plath, Ingrid Jonker’s Story Is Told In BLACK BUTTERFLIESFebruary 24, 2012

South Africa’s Sylvia Plath, Ingrid Jonker’s Story Is Told In BLACK BUTTERFLIES

Tibeca Film

On Demand Weekly provides new movie reviews of hot movies on demand from the POV of watching from the comfort of your home. Today’s review: BLACK BUTTEFLIES (Tribeca Film).

The soul-piercing voice of a generation, of a people…Ingrid Jonker
By Cynthia Kane


She’s known widely in South Africa, but elsewhere, I’m just not sure. The South Africans refer to her as their “Sylvia Plath”, but her words speak more fully of the human experience, of injustice and touch on the social and political. Not only will BLACK BUTTERLIES attract an art-house audience and perhaps wider – particularly women and a smart crowd who just likes a good story – it may also introduce this poet’s work to a new audience outside her native land.



To call Ingrid Jonker, the “South African Sylvia Plath” just doesn’t make sense, except they were both women, extraordinary poets, emotionally charged and both died well before their time. I don’t know if Jonker was depressed or mentally ill; this film seems to indicate the circumstances of her life played a huge part in her chaotic behavior, her enormous sensual appetites, her desire to live life fully, her need to attack injustices via her words. Is she so different than any other artist who’s politically, emotionally charged? Was it the times in which she lived that puts that judgment of mental instability on her? Was she unhinged or was her society, this Apartheid-era South Africa the element of actual insanity, and not the woman here?


In reality Jonker was far more political, her poems attacking the ugly, racist society she lived in. a nice but maybe not necessary moment at end, includes we hear Nelson Mandela reading her most famous work, "The child (who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga)". It would have been less cliché to choose another way of demonstrating her continued popularity in post-Apartheid South Africa; Nelson Mandela does not have to be part of every South African film that comes out internationally.


The film is carried by strong performances by Dutch actress Carine Van Houten as Jonker, Irish actor Liam Cunningham as her lover, the South African novelist Jack Cope. This pair have an incredible on-screen chemistry – there are great love scenes here; I even thought to myself how rarely we see great and honest love scenes of late. My favorite aspect of the film is Rutger Hauer playing her father, a man who heads the Apartheid government’s Censorship Board and condemns his daughter publicly by banning her work. Hauer is a much finer actor than any of us stateside give him credit for and I have to admit I didn’t recognize him until the credits rolling at the end reminded me.


What Dutch director Paula van der Oest doesn’t give us is a fuller picture of Jonker’s life. Indeed she covers a period during the last 5 years before her suicide at age 31. Here we get a sense of her dismal childhood, abandoned then taken in by a father who could care less, but what happens in between? Suddenly she’s being pulled out of the sea, when Jack Cope jumps in to save her (uh-oh! Clunky foreshadowing!) and then recognizes her as the famous poet Ingrid Jonker. What happened between that childhood and this point in time? There’s no real sense of that here but I was captivated enough by this film, Jonker’s story, to jump online to discover more.

And now… I will read her poetry and maybe others who don’t know her, like me, will too.


demand it

- Cynthia Kane

Cynthia Kane reviews documentaries for On Demand Weekly. She is a writer and Sr Programming Manager for [ ITVS], overseeing the International Initiative for funding in their SF office. Prior she’s had many incarnations from actor to writer to producer. She co-created DOCday on Sundance Channel.


Look for BLACK BUTTERFLIES (Tribeca Film) under your cable system's On Demand section.



Read Other Reviews By Cynthia Kane:





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