Photographer and filmmaker Sanaa Mothabisa draws inspiration from PRO to tell township stories

Pimville visual storyteller Sanaa Mothabisa chats to HYPE about drawing inspiration from SA hip-hop legend PRO in telling township stories.

Written by HYPE Staff, Images: Supplied

In an interview with Tagged, Sanaa Mothabisa recounted how a PRO music video shoot for the song ‘Uthini Ngo Pro’ in 2007 marked a turning point in his life. Hailing from Pimville, Soweto, the same hood as the South African hip-hop legend, Sanaa got to witness the video shoot and decided there and then that he would get into filmmaking.

Now an accomplished filmmaker, who has worked for the likes of Bomb Productions, released his own short films and was recently part of MultiChoice’s Origins campaign, Sanaa still hails PRO as his main inspiration.

Of course, the late kasi rapper’s influence expands beyond hip-hop; as a skilled yet accessible rapper, PRO was the people’s storyteller. His breakout hit ‘Soweto’ cemented him as the face of Soweto. The intro of his 2005 debut album Heads and Tales, where ‘Soweto’ appears, was a recording of PRO (then PROKid) walking in his hood to take the taxi to the studio.

Similarly, one of Sanaa’s most loved TikTok videos is a POV video of him walking in the hood.

@fro.sanaa

Take a walk around my home with me.❤️ my uncut love for iKasi. #TikTokShortfilm

♬ original sound – Sanaa

 

The clip opens with him saying, “Awuthi ngibabonise ikasi” (let me show them the hood), before displaying a series of clips showing kids playing in the streets, a drum majorettes’ procession, amajita chillin’ in the corner, a cameo from The Co-Founder, a dog barking at him behind a fence and more beauty.

In the interview below, Sanaa speaks on the similarities between his and PRO’s work, his experience of the Origins campaign, creating content in the social media age and other topics.

Editor’s note: This interview has been slightly edited for clarity and length. 

In the beginning of the minidocumentary about you for the Multichoice Origins campaign, you kick a freestyle. Are you also a rapper?

That comes from my love for PRO. I am a crazy PRO fan. And you can even see from my work that I listen to him a lot, but obviously, we are using different mediums – he’s a rapper, I’m a [visual] storyteller. But we’re basically from the same township, we tell the same stories, so I usually draw a lot of inspiration from him.

That is definitely true; PRO was a kasi storyteller. What is it about him that inspires you?

I see him as someone that paved the way for us to be us. I see him as someone that took the time and was confident enough to celebrate where he’s from. Whenever I listened to his music in high school and varsity, I would see myself in the music. Because it’s a reflection of our community. So, taking that as an inspiration and translating it to video format. I feel like he’s one of those people that pioneered everything we do. So, I feel like he’s my inspiration, my core inspiration of everything.

Read: Back to the streets: Pretoria and Cape Town are leading the resurgence of street rap in South Africa

What’s your favourite PRO album? It’s almost unanimously agreed that Dankie San is his best work.

Different albums represent different times in my life. So, if you wanna go Dankie San, I’m like but I was struggling when that one came through. (Laughs)

If you wanna say, “yo, mfana besogrand uhlanganelwa,” I’ll go Continua. Like yo… (Starts rapping Continua’s ‘Intro’.)

So, it’s like eish, I don’t know… he’s the first microphone holder… DNA, Snakes & Ladders, Dankie, Continua. So, yeah, I don’t have one specific album.

You mentioned in the minidoccie that using a phone is less intimidating to subjects as opposed to when you’re using a camera. How do those nuances affect the actual image?  

 There’s a huge difference and disconnect from the pictures that I took with the camera. Because when people see a camera, even if they’re not scared, they [become] performative in how they would love people to see them. So, they won’t be themselves. But when you take out a phone, it’s not intimidating, as I mentioned. So, I feel like I found a way to get great and authentic performances from people using my device, as opposed to cameras.

However, I still do shoot with my camera, but in a more controlled environment. Because I understand where I’m from and I don’t want a lot of questions and just the negative business that comes with that. People already know what I do; I’m on TV now and when you take out that camera, it’s like, ‘you’re making money out of us’. So, you have to also understand where you come from; understand the environment and the people that you are photographing.

As advanced as phone cameras have become, they still have limitations. So, what would you say were your challenges when you’re shooting using a phone?

 If there’s always one thing in your life that you always have, whether you’re using the toilet, at a stadium or travelling, that’s your phone and it will follow you wherever you’re going. And if you wanna go in-depth, you can also edit on your phone, that’s an advantage.

 But, I love to print my work. I don’t get a lot of texture, mfana, from images that I took on my phone. As someone that would love to archive actual prints and sell them as well, I feel like, even though in post I try to bring in more grey… try to texturize it, it doesn’t quite get [to camera standard].

However, I do feel like I’m privileged to also live in the generation of social media. Sometimes you need to overlook what you actually love and be the purpose of the generation you represent.

What was the experience of being part of the Multichoice Origins campaign like?

Uyabona, there are campaigns, but this was literally the campaign. Just from how they approached us; the treatment from the first meeting, you would feel that they’re gonna tell your story in the most honest and genuine way. And, also them allowing us to come in and direct… for me, as a film director, I had a perspective on how I want to be shown and I add into my story.

You have to remember that we’re not models or subjects, we are actually storytellers. Sometimes you are insecure about giving someone your story because you’re not sure how they will interpret it. But just them allowing us to be us, really made me so comfortable.

And during shoot day, there was a time when I was with my family; I invited my whole family. This is driving me to another point; that our parents are old and they struggle [to fully understand] what we actually do. Because I was so comfortable with the campaign and how they were doing it with me, I wanted my family to come see what I do when I say I’m working. So, my parents were there, my siblings were there, everyone was just there. And it felt good. The treatment they got as well when they were there… hhayi, no, MultiChoice really really put in a lot of effort.

And it was a passion project for them as well, so you can imagine that they’ve been pushing this for the longest time and it worked out really well.

Your short film Zion explores faith. Why was that subject a subject you wanted to tackle at that time when you made the film?

So, the story really comes from this one particular Sunday when I noticed that everyone from my house was wearing a different uniform, we used to go to different churches. So, seeing that, sparked some level of curiosity while I was still young. Seven different perspectives, seven different faiths, if you want to say that, but you can still be a home.

When I went to varsity, I met someone called Jodie, he is a Jewish brother, and then I shared about this thing and I really started my research then. That’s why I also took so long… because I needed to talk to people. Before shooting, I needed to actually see the practices.

And then as the love was growing for that project, I did more research and then I decided to shoot and get someone to represent or celebrate all religions under the umbrella that God is one.

 

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