Reflections in a broken mirror– documentary exploring  Afrikaans theatre’s ability to reflect the zeitgeist of the post-Apartheid Afrikaner and its struggle to survive in the new South Africa

Directors: Amber Fox-Martin and Philip Theron
Producer: Amber Fox-Martin

YouTube trailer:


Reflections in a broken mirror is a documentary which is having its world premiere at the 2023 edition of Encounters South African International Documentary Festival.  It is co-directed by Amber Fox-Martin and Philip Theron, with a rousing soundtrack of original music, composed by Jannous Aukema and archival composition by Braam du Toit. The film has had its Cape Town screening at Encounters and tonight, June 29, 2023, screens in Johannesburg at The Zone @Rosebank at 7.30pm. There will be Q&A after the screening, moderated by Kelly-Eve Koopman.

The film grapples with and interrogates “Afrikaans theatre’s ability to reflect the zeitgeist of the post-Apartheid Afrikaner and its struggle to survive in the new South Africa.” The film focusses on Afrikaans theatre history from 1984 to 2022. The interviews are riveting. This film is a must see for anyone interested in South African theatre, culture, identity, language; theatre as a vital body of expression which can convey and transcend “language” though metaphor and imaging and connect with audiences in a visceral manner.  The film raises many issues – the politics of translation, self-censorship in a country where creatives are afraid of “offending” the ruling powers and so on.  The film is a celebration and sadly a fierce lament. More of that follows.

The film forms part of Amber Fox-Martin’s MA thesis, at Stellenbosch University’s History Department. The film follows on Fox-Martin’s documentary, A Feast in Time of Plague, which examined Afrikaans theatre makers, working, during Apartheid and how they subverted and pushed structures in that time – as a means of speaking out. Reflections in a broken mirror follows on, with the narrative in post-Apartheid South Africa.

The canvas of this film is vast. The film features seminal theatre productions: TRITS (Mis, Mirakel, Drif) (1992–1994), Donkerland (1996), Drie Susters, Twee (1997), Boklied (1998), Ek, Anna van Wyk (1999), Aars! (2001), Saad (2007), Ons vir Jou (2008), Sakrament (2009), Die kortsondige raklewe van Anastasia W. (2010), and Balbesit (2013). The extraordinary line-up of interviews, includes: Alexa Strachan, Antoinette Kellerman, Braam du Toit, Diane de Beer, Hugo Theart, Jaco Bouwer, Karen Meiring, Marthinus Basson, Martie Meiring, Pieter Fourie, Saartjie Botha, Temple Hauptfleisch and Wessel Pretorius.

The Apartheid era Arts Councils were disbanded in 1997. The year 1995, saw the establishing of the first Afrikaans theatre festival – The Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees (KKNK) – in Oudtshoorn. The Afrikaans festival circuit proliferated and has provided vital platform to showcase the new Afrikaans theatre. Mandela, gave an address at KKNK in 2001. He spoke about his love for Afrikaans. In archival footage, used in the film, Madiba reflects: “This festival increasingly affirms that Afrikaans is neither a language of whites only, nor a European language. The festival is steadily developing into the true face of Afrikaans. A language born in and from this country; through the interaction of people from different backgrounds, cultures, races and history.”

At the start of the film, Fox-Martin tracks how luminary theatre maker, Marthinus Basson began to delve “into the psyche of the Afrikaner exploring what lay beneath the surface of a culture in conflict with itself.”  Basson “opened up an avenue and suddenly a lot of people flowed in a slip stream” in the “liminal 90s”. A searing segment of the film relates. how when Basson, who was head of the state funded theatre, CAPAB, contacted five renowned playwrights to commission new works for a new South Africa; the only one to respond was Reza de Wet. The question mooted: “Writing about us – but who is ‘us’? White Afrikaner’s?” Reza da Wet’s Drie Susters, Twee, became CAPAB’s last production [1997]. As we are told in the film, this production was set in Russia – 19 years after the revolution. The play wrestled with a new order – “a time of transition- fears and anxieties.” Basson later talks about “the paranoia of language… the one lot understands each other and the other doesn’t… there is a contra narrative. No one really understands what anyone is saying.”

Do we understand what anyone is saying and how do we deal with that? The Interviews with Saartjie Botha (playwright and artistic director of Woordfees) and Martie Meiring Woordfees Advisory Board, tussle with many of these issues.  Martie Meiring: “Saartjie was aware that we were in deep, deep shit in this country – what was it we were going to present to people…?” Botha: “I think a festival should be politically agnostic- you cannot have a view point … you need to be as neutral as possible… we are Switzerland and present ourselves as Switzerland…” Martie Meiring: “Who is going to do great theatre in what is happening right now in this country?” [Martie Meiring- specified- as Karen Meiring is also interviewed in the documentary]

Issues of language, translation and to re-iterate- the politics of translation – are a potent leitmotif of this illuminating film. It is not simply words but ideas and obviously with the theatre medium and physical theatre in particular, a lot is conveyed non-verbally. The Afrikaans theater makers in post-Apartheid South Africa, wrestled with a great deal – carrying the baton of the past, reflecting on the broken mirror of the shattered Rainbow Nation and looking to the future. There are astounding interviews – intense interviews – and threaded with I would say on the one hand jubilation: “Look what we made, we achieved so much”. Dovetailing with that is palpable grief. There is the despair of creating theatre of substance in a time when artists are increasingly afraid to “offend” and not speak out against the ruling powers now and the state of the nation.

There is sadness that the money is in Afrikaans TV and film (huge money invested in TV and film) and that it commercially viable to make films/series which people want to see. People want escape from reality and where does that leave theatre – Afrikaans theatre – all theatre in South Africa? Jaco Bouwer grapples with the question: “Does theatre need something to kick against?” Here is a narrative plot spoiler- so stop – if you don’t want to know how Reflections ends. It ends with something of a requiem, when veteran theatre maker, Deon Opperman, notes in a message he sent to the film-makers, that after making his last TV series, he is leaving South Africa, for America. He declined to be interviewed for the film. Opperman transitioned from theatre to film and TV as it was lucrative but he got to a point, where it was the end of the road for him.

Reflections in a broken mirror is an outstanding film. To reiterate – it is essential viewing for anyone interested in theatre in South Africa- past, present and its role in the future. Diane de Beer emphasises: “We have to pull these issues apart on stage. If we can’t do it there, how are we going to deal with the issues?” The lens of this film is for the most part on White Afrikaans theater makers, carrying the baton from their White predecessors, working in Apartheid South Africa. There are many Afrikaans theatre makers of colour, currently creating theatre and I hope that the vital conversations ignited in Reflections, will be continued in another film by Fox-Martin. Reflections in a broken mirror is more than a thesis film. It is more than an essay film.

The joy of this film for me and that again goes to the issue of “translation” is the excellent English subtitles and that makes it accessible for those of us who are less than fluent in Afrikaans. I love the way the film seamlessly flips between Afrikaans and English – interviewers segue from one language to another and the way that the gaps are filled in with subtitles and with the Afrikaans accented voiceover by Nina Smit. Exquisitely composed and edited, with its original score and soundtrack, archival footage (animated so it is not flat) and clear subtitles, it is an excellent document – a multilayered and nuanced expression of theatre in South Africa. After its film festival run, it will be available to view with its essay accompaniment, on Stellenbosch University’s academic database.

✳ Featured image: Still of Ubu and the Secrecy Bill [2012].