A young mathematical prodigy destined to study science, an orphaned child thrown into the barracks of Cape Town’s Mitchell’s Plain township, his discovery of local hip-hop and his rise to the scene’s throne… Just like the rainbow nation’s history, Isaac “Mutant”‘s career is made up of light and shadow, terrible ruptures and fantastic creativity.
The man perfectly embodies the chaos of contemporary South Africa. Misunderstood, always between glitter and grime, Isaac has many reputations: part gang member, part Rasta, horrorcore boss with his former group DooKoom… Yet, Isaac Mutant, who has worked with Die Antwoord and shared the stage with Public Enemy, has also been called the ‘God of Afrikaans Rap’ for his lyrical prowess. It is this fractured, sometimes censored narrative that Lebogang Rasethaba and Nthato Mokgata aka Spoek Mathambo have decided to restore. Over a six year production process, the two directors have followed him in his different worlds, deep in his host communities. The film MUTANT tells the story of Isaac’s many lives and paints an intimate portrait of this astonishing rapological monster. An auteur documentary, MUTANT is also a radical assessment of a country still riven by social crises and racial division.
Lebo, Nthato, how did the idea of making an entire documentary about Isaac come about?
Nthato: The initial documentary point was broadly about Hip-Hop artists from different sides of South Africa. We had people from different areas, different socio-economic groups, different cultures… it was three people initially, and Isaac’s story just ended up being the one that took over. He really took hold of the proceeding.
Lebogang: I think the context was that myself and Nthato had finished a documentary called Future sounds of Mzansi, and one of the learnings we had from that film was that we wanted to make a film with a lot more residence and a lot more character-depth. Future sounds of Mzansi featured a whole lot of people, talking about a lot of different issues, but the most compelling stories were of only two characters. So over those learnings, we thought to ourselves: let’s make a film that could get people to connect just on character-depth. That was the framework in which we entered the new documentary. Out of that, Isaac had the story that we felt the most compelling as filmmakers but also on the other side, he was the character that gave himself the most to the film. I always say that the universe will always tell you what film to make. And in that instance, that was the film the universe was telling us to make.
When did you realize that Isaac had to be the central character of the documentary?
Lebogang: As much as we wanted to do character-driven documentaries, what we were also trying to make was a film about a particular individual, who is kind of a window into a broader group in society. And by extension, gives you access to broader social issues. It’s also a film about social issues. Isaac was the character we felt stronger in the social issues he was representing in South Africa in the current moment. It’s important to take into context what Isaac represents socially and culturally, more than himself.
Isaac is known for his very strong and radical opinions. Was it difficult for you to explain his state of mind?
Nthato: I think it was important to let him speak for himself. Because some of the things he says are radical and I can’t stand behind it and say I agree. But another thing we did in that way was to get other voices from his community, to speak to the points he is making and kind of nuance and give different angles on the points he is making, which may sound radical in the way that he says that, but in greater depth become justified in many different ways.
Lebogang: There are two voices in the documentary: Isaac’s family, and people who Isaac introduced us to, and then there are other people from research that were already active in that conversation. And the film was a balance of these two. Isaac took us on a tour to all these different spaces. He took us to the place he grew up in, to Mitchell’s Plains, to the different areas… As we followed him, we met all the different characters he introduced us to. That’s how we also got to meet very interesting characters.
We very quickly realize that the documentary is not going to be about music, and will go beyond it…
Nthato: When you talk about beyond music, you firstly have to ask yourself what Isaac’s music is about. The film is about music, because each thing is based on his songs. There’s nothing spoken about in the film that isn’t rooted in the music that he makes. Every single issue can be traced back to his lyrics. The film is about his music, and his music is about social issues. If it would have been a film about hip-hop set in the favelas in Brazil, they would have talked about the situation. We were in the Cape Flats, so we spoke about where the hip-hop comes from, what are the energies that make it so necessary, and also fuel the artistic content.
It is also a journey in Isaac’s different influences, from the hip-hop stuff, to the Khoisan roots, to the rastafari South African adaptation… Did you intend to shoot that kind of journey?
Nthato: There are different sides to Isaac. Isaac has been a kind of a nomad, and has been accepted in different families. So he took us with him to these different families. He has very much a rasta family, he has a hip-hop family, more rough street families. He gave us access to all these aspects of society.
Lebogang: Isaac doesn’t call himself a Coloured, he calls himself a Khoisan. It’s a phenomenon that’s been happening since the 60s, trying to take out European colonial identities and taking on identities from South Africa. So a lot of people from the so-called Coloured identity moved from that identity and said they were black; others took on the Zulu identity, and others the Khoisan identity. Now there’s been a strong resurgence of that.
What can you tell us about the shooting process?
Lebogang: We were in production for six years, to complete the film, with the last round of shooting being last year. That’s why he is sometimes wearing summer or winter clothes. It was a process where we would edit, edit, edit, then stop and go back shooting, then edit, edit, edit… We basically built the ship while we were sailing. We didn’t have a clear sense of how the film would end, and the ending that we initially imagined was not the ending we got to. It wasn’t easy to produce, a lot of it wasn’t commissioned, we did it from us without any funds. There were parts where we had specific questions about how he grew up, and so we were the ones wanting to go to his family. Once we could find him, as soon as we got him on the line, he was a great documentary subject. He’s very giving, very enthusiastic, and it’s through him that we met a lot of other people.
Can we say that he co-directed the movie?
Nthato: Yes, precisely! There were many things that he wanted to show and tell. He wasn’t very secretive, he wasn’t hiding, he very much wanted his story to be told, he even said he waited his whole life for his story to be told. I think he feels very misunderstood. He was a child prodigy who was brilliant at maths and science and yet some people look at him like a bergie (South African slang for homeless) or like a rough street guy. But he has a deeper intellect. It’s for people who do not understand Afrikaans to hear Afrikaans people say that lyrically, he’s an excellent writer. All those little bits of this story help tell his story in another way. He’s called the “God of Afrikaans rap”. He wants people to know that. Because in France, you see Dookoom, but you don’t hear the lyrics. One thing we did not want to do was to put any subject that would be controversial and that would take away the actual story of Isaac. Whatever thing we thought was getting in the way of telling Isaac’s story, we wouldn’t include it in the film. In this film, Isaac really owns his story, and he owns the world he comes from and he talks about.
Lebogang: I think out of any film that I’ve made, this one had the most ethical questions. Every shot, every cutting had ethical questioning, reflection and debate involved. We really understood the power that we come with as filmmakers, and as outsiders from that community.
Before its online release, MUTANT will premier at the Jozi Film Festival. The screening will be followed by a Q&A session.
MUTANT screens Friday 1 October 2021 at 8pm SAST. Free registration here.
MUTANT, written and directed by Lebogang Rasethaba and Nthato Mokgata, produced by Sifiso Khanyile – Arcade – TEKA – Anaphora Films. 2021.