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Paula van der Oest: Black Butterflies

When Nelson Mandela read her poetry in Parliament, Ingrid Jonker became a legend. Now on VOD, Black Butterflies revives South Africa's barefooted bard in soul and spirit.

Note: This interview originally ran as part of our coverage of the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Black Butterflies is now playing on nationwide VOD. Find out how and where you can watch it.

Tribeca: Tell us a little about Black Butterflies.

Paula van der Oest: Black Butterflies is the true life and love story of the talented young South African poet Ingrid Jonker, a strong-headed woman and disobedient white artist during the Apartheid regime. From an early age, Ingrid finds her freedom and solace in writing, whenever and wherever she can. Despite the love of many men and her relationship with the famous writer Jack Cope, no one can give Ingrid what she seeks. Rejected by her father, who worked as minister of censorship in the Apartheid regime of 1960s South Africa, she struggles to find a home and a love 

Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? Had you always been interested in/familiar with Ingrid Jonker’s poetry?

Paula van der Oest: I have always loved the South African language, although it is, in a way, the language of the white suppressor (the Dutch were among the first settlers in South Africa; the language is therefore very similar to Dutch but much more poetical). A friend of mine made a beautiful documentary about Ingrid Jonker and gave me her poems. I was struck by the lucidity and sensitiveness of her writing. When the producer of the documentary suggested to make a feature, inspired by Ingrid Jonker’s life, I immediately said yes.

Tribeca: How did you approach adapting Ingrid’s poems and the events that inspired poems, such as “The Dead Child of Nyanga,” visually? Were there any particular elements of her writing that you wanted to reveal through casting, cinematography etc.?

Paula van der Oest: A feature film is not a documentary. In reality, Ingrid Jonker went to a police station and watched pictures of the boy shot dead in Nyanga. But to understand her rage and despair, the audience has to feel what had happened there. We decided to show the shooting, to make it more impressive, in order to make the audience understand Ingrid’s urge to write about it. In her poems, nature is present everywhere. The sea is an important theme. She was always walking barefoot. Those elements are visible in the shots. The light in South Africa is beautiful, we got that as a present. Sometimes the sunset was even too beautiful!

Tribeca: How did you go about researching the more intimate details of Ingrid’s life, particularly her relationship with Jack Cope? Did they really meet in such a foreshadowing episode?

Paula van der Oest: The writer of the script, Greg Latter, spent months in a university in South Africa to read the diaries of Jack Cope. It’s a very detailed report of their relationship. When we first starting to talk about Ingrid Jonker, we decided to make her relationship with Jack the most important one. He was her teacher, he opened up for her a complete new world. But she was also inspiring for him.  She was also his muse. They didn’t really meet in the sea, but they swam a lot, and a lot of the other details are true. Ingrid loved sex; she was known for suddenly walking into a room stark-naked. Jack loved her incredibly much—but couldn’t bear living with her, finally.

Black Butterflies Tribeca: What's the craziest thing (or "lightning strikes" moment) that happened during production?

Paula van der Oest: A few things come to my mind. First, the water is terribly cold around Cape Town. We had planned a love scene in the water, but that would have physically been totally impossible. And also our actress, Carice van Houten, had the tendency to cool down very rapidly. We had a set doctor stand by, who once measured her body temperature and it was 35 degrees Celsius (95 F). Also a funny thing was that in one dinner scene, Ingrid had to suck the juice out of a crayfish head. But Carice was terrified of crayfish. The art department had to make one… It looks very real, by the way… So real that Carice hardly dared to touch it!

Tribeca: What’s the biggest thing you learned while making Black Butterflies?

Paula van der Oest: Filmmaking is a universal thing. I worked with a completely unfamiliar South African crew. But they all loved Ingrid Jonker’s poetry, saw that the actors were doing a magnificient, true job, and therefore felt that we were making something special. Everything came together; it was an inspiring shooting period. I think we experienced what the Spanish called ‘duende’ (Duende is a difficult-to-define word used in the Spanish arts, can be loosely translated as having soul, a heightened state of emotion, expression and authenticity, often connected with flamenco.)

Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from Black Butterflies?

Paula van der Oest: I hope they are touched by the fragile and at the same time strong Ingrid Jonker. She was very authentic. I hope the audience will love Ingrid Jonker’s poetry as much as I do. I hope they will be moved by the film. And I hope Carice van Houten, who I think is the best actress in The Netherlands (and abroad) will win an award for best actress. [Editor's note: she did!]

Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?

Paula van der Oest: Stay close to yourself, don’t give up, trust your intuition, have patience.

Black Butterflies

Tribeca: If you could have dinner with any filmmaker (alive or dead), who would it be?

Paula van der Oest: This I always find the most difficult question. Can it be a big table? In that case I would like to invite Woody Allen, Ang Lee, Sofia Coppola, Gus van Sant, Alejandro Iñarritu.

Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/tv show) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?

Paula van der Oest: I can’t choose between the novel Music for Torching by A.M. Homes and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. I love American literature.

Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?

Paula van der Oest: "Dutch Angle: The Better Angle."

Tribeca: What makes Black Butterflies a must-see?

Paula van der Oest: The actors, the images of South Africa, the compelling story. The fact that the only two Dutch international movie stars we have in the Netherlands—each from a different generation)—have been brought together in this film: Carice van Houten (Black Book, Valkyrie) and Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, The Hitcher.)


Black Butterflies is now playing on nationwide VOD, and opens Friday, March 2 at
Cinema Village in New York City. Find out how and where you can watch it.

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