A film which has as its content the plight of a much loved animal, the seeming villain a black religious group and the seeming heroes a few white men has, at the outset, many pitfalls. And that it has these pitfalls is good and right. If such features of a film did not instantaneously present problems for it, we would still be living in the dark ages. So, perhaps, in a sense, such a film is guilty until proven innocent.
Films about much loved animals which are on the brink of extinction or are being cruelly treated generally evokes in me a sense of trepidation. My trepidation is due to the high possibility of the film being sentimental. Even without trying to be sentimental, stories about the plight of an animal, particularly a beautiful mammal like a leopard, are in danger of being so. Therefore, unless some sort of effort has been made to avoid this in a film, it is bound to fail on this score. ‘To Skin a Cat’ remains sensitive to the plight of the leopard without once resorting to oversimplified appeals to blind bias and uncritical sentiment from its viewer. It does this by its use of facts; facts about the animals, facts about the people, facts about the dilemma.
The fact that the skins of leopards have been an important part of the ritual activities of the Shembe people is not a situation which should be commented on in a simple manner. History has too many stories like these, spanning too many different groups of people, for the matter to elicit easy commentary. This makes one of the primary acts of heroism in the making of this film the ongoing attention given to the complexity of the situation. Another such heroic act being the indubitably humane response of many Shembe devotees to the plight of the leopard.
But instead of over stating the obvious in the script, and then hoping that the resultant platitudes will convince the viewer, the film shows the story of a rather eccentric, and definitely extreme, pursuit of a ‘true’ faux fur. This quest, spanning many years, takes a conservationist and graphic designer all the way to China. Never before has thread count, exact shades of brown and yellow, subtle variation in sets of man-made spots and the size of a repeated pattern counted for so much. Never have lives depended on these things. Never has a membrane made of some artificial fibre become a spokesperson of such importance; a mediator between people and a champion for a wild animal.
‘To Skin a Cat’ must have been a difficult film to make. The social terrain is treacherous. But it has trod gently, lain low and pounced quickly and true.