Mozambican-born filmmaker Helena Nogueira at first thought Ingrid Jonker's suicide was the final act of a loser. That was until she made a documentary about the South African poet, writes Adam Levin.
On May 25 1994, in his opening address to South Africa's first democratic Parliament, President Nelson Mandela spoke, quite unexpectedly, of one of this country's great poets.
"She was both an Afrikaner and an African," he said. "Both an artist and a human being. In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. To her and others like her we owe a debt to life itself. Her name is Ingrid Jonker."
He recited Jonker's poem, "Die kind wat doodgeskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga" [The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga] in its original Afrikaans. This was not simply an act of multicultural reconciliation; it was a victory for the significance of our cultural icons.
Although Jonker's legacy had long been cherished among her surviving peers and Afrikaans literary cognoscenti, it was the first time Mozambican-born filmmaker, Helena Nogueira, had heard of her.
She recalls spotting a Sunday Times story the following weekend that focused on the love triangle between Jonker, André Brink and Jack Cope, and on Jonker's suicide, when she walked into the waves at Three Anchor Bay in 1965 - an act hauntingly reminiscent of Virginia Woolf's demise.
"I read the story and tossed it in the bin," Nogueira says. "Oh no, I thought. Not another woman loser!" Little did she realise Jonker's story would consume the next decade of her life.
I read the story and tossed it in the bin. Oh no, I thought. Not another woman loser!
Days later producer Shan Moodley approached Nogueira with the idea of making a film about Jonker. Nogueira voiced doubts, but agreed to take a book of her poetry on an upcoming trip to Europe, with a cover photo she couldn't bear to look at. While staying in London, a flatmate picked up the book and was fascinated by it. They chatted.
It was then that Nogueira's take on Jonker shifted. "I realised she wasn't a loser but a tragic figure. Gradually I grasped that she had risen above her circumstances with integrity and made her choices." She smiles. "Even suicide is a choice when you can go no further."
Soft-spoken and unassuming, Nogueira likes complexity. She also likes deep, difficult characters, but it was her fascination with a woman's quest to find her unique voice in a world that denied her one that drew Nogueira to a story far removed from her own cultural references.
"When I began reading the poetry, I was hooked. Intuitively, I knew Ingrid's life and mine were going to cross, and I realised this could be a universal story."
Nogueira's life became consumed with the making of a documentary, Ingrid Jonker: Her Lives and Time, which will reach its creative culmination in an international feature film, to be shot later this year. It is a sensitive but objective portrayal of Jonker's life, beginning with her death and tracking back through her short, troubled life, helping us understand key events from her mother's insanity to her literary achievements and failure to gain love and acceptance from men who mattered to her.
"Why do women get so overwhelmed?" Nogueira huffs. "A tragic figure becomes tragic because her sense of loss becomes unbearable. That is quite different from a loser."
With scant footage to work with, Nogueira brings her protagonist to life in interviews with those who knew her - painter Majorie Wallace, writers Breyten Breytenbach, Brink and Sir Laurens van der Post, Jonker's daughter Simone and others. The fact that Jonker's legacy exudes such vibrancy 30 years after her death is testament to the way she affected people.
Nogueira pitched her idea to all three local TV channels, but no one was interested in a film about Jonker at the time. "They had done 20-minute slots, but an hour or more on an artist? Never."
She shifts from philosopher to activist. "That says something about how people respond to culture in the society we live in. What sort of value do we place on artists?"
In the scratchy photos salvaged from Clifton beach in the 1950s and 1960s, we see Jonker with figures like Uys Krige and Jack Cope.
Nogueira's process of making the film finds its echoes in its content. In the scratchy photos salvaged from Clifton beach in the 1950s and 1960s, we see Jonker with well-known figures like Uys Krige and Cope. Though clearer in hindsight, this group, later known as the Sestigers, emerged, in books and literary journals, as a seminal movement in Afrikaans literature.
This intimate clutch of Afrikaner writers grappled with the complexity of their identity - embracing their culture on one hand while rejecting the apartheid regime on the other...
This conflict was all the more painful for Jonker, whose father, Abraham, was a Nationalist Party MP, and was instrumental in getting censorship laws passed. Upon hearing of her suicide, he reportedly said, "They may as well throw her body back into the sea."
The Sestigers gained momentum in Paris, where Jonker would later visit and get to know Breytenbach and Brink. "Paris became the centre because of the way the French perceived artists," says Nogueira. "If you looked at writers like Voltaire, it was clear writers could be instrumental in social change. But they were also having a great time, going to cafés, writing novels, so they're remembered as much for their parties as for their contribution."
For Nogueira, gaining access to surviving Sestigers was a domino-like process of building trust and opening doors. As a friend of Krige's niece, Grethe Fox, she managed to access Topsie Venter, the second wife of Jonker's husband, Piet. She reached Jonker's daughter, Simone. Then painters Wallace and Erik Laubscher.
Even though this was years after her death, they all spoke about Ingrid as though she had just left the room.
"Even though this was years after her death, they all spoke about Ingrid as though she had just left the room," Nogueira twinkles. "After so long, they were still moved to laughter and to tears. And all these extraordinary people became great friends of mine."
Watching the film, the myth surrounding Jonker begins to unravel. The insight of the interviews exposes the people Jonker had become for each of them, hence the title, Her Lives and Time. But Nogueira still needed to reach key figures like Brink, Breytenbach and Van der Post.
"I waited months in London for that interview. Sir Laurens was ill and in a lot of pain. But finally, we spent an extraordinary morning together at his flat in Chelsea. It was the last interview he gave before he died."
Van der Post's interview was crucial to the film in that it links Jonker's final choice to her unrequited love for Brink, and convincing him to break a 30-year silence about Jonker was no easy task. "First he said no. But he watched a rough cut. He laughed and he cried and, finally, he agreed to speak. I think it was important for him to get it out after all that time."
While the film doesn't hold anyone culpable for Jonker's death, it helps us understand it. "It's not useful to judge as a filmmaker," says Nogueira, "but to understand. And understanding Ingrid was a slow, organic process."
Another reason the film took so long was raising money to buy back the archival footage sold internationally by the SABC. Consequently, six-and-a-half minutes cost half a million rand. A lot of time was spent negotiating music rights and convincing people this was a low-budget film worth supporting. "And all the time, I was doing other work to fund Ingrid."
Nogueira was also working on a separate script for the feature, which will be a British co-production. She has gathered together a family to support it, including friends such as Emma Thompson, who Nogueira brought to SA for a scriptwriting workshop and the documentary's premiere, and producer David Partridge, well known for turning obscure stories into commercial successes, which ultimately is what this project aims to achieve.
Given the enormous efforts involved, I challenge Nogueira on South Africans' apathetic track record in actually watching local films. "I think the documentary can cross over to a commercial market. But it may not." It is, as she points out, a wonderful archival document: many of the people in the film are dead and one would never get those stories again.
Curiously, the film reveals layers of projection. As Nogueira points out, in "Die Kind" Jonker is not just taking a political stand; she is talking about her own recent abortion. In his interview, Van der Post is not just talking about Brink, but about himself. Meanwhile, like her subject, Nogueira appears to have found her voice. "What's important is that I didn't compromise," she says, raising a finger. "I made the film I wanted to."