Conservation, Events, News, Poaching, Science & Environment, Travel

To Skin a Cat

Interview with Co-Director Greg Lomas

Where did you grow up? Not just a place but specifics, your favorite place near home, things you loved to do and/or a favorite story.

I grew up in Durban, KwaZulu Natal, a province of substantial beauty and diversity, as well as the suitable climate which allows one to have a childhood spent outdoors. It’s a tropical place, and our childhood was spent full of adventure. As an adult, it is still suitable to that with the weather ideal for surfing, or other outdoor adventures. The city itself is very bold representation of our country, and the real mixture of culture and class makes it a fertile place for stories. It has the beaches, the wild coast to the south, the glorious north coast stretching to Mozambique and the Drakensberg mountains.

Have you always had a connection to the outdoors? 

My parents often took us to game reserves as children, and we are fortunate to have become very close family friends with the Coppen family who were involved in the formation of Phinda Private Game Reserve as well as other projects in St Lucia, and I was lucky as a child to have spent many family holidays in these environments.

What drove you to your career in photography and film? Childhood dream, or?

I studied graphic design and art direction but have always had a fascination with photography, especially documentary photography, which developed into an interest for documentary film-making. It was always a dream, and one I started quite late, and by some luck. Whilst practicing graphic design I started exhibiting my travel photography which then grew into commercial work in that nature, and when we started To Skin a Cat, we began our career in film-making.

What led you and Colwyn to work together on this project?

Colwyn and I met in High School. We became close friends and have worked together on several different projects over the years.

Tells us about the dynamic between you and Colwyn. Is there one of you who is responsible for specific duties/responsibilities? Was there ever much argument about how to proceed with the film, or has your understanding of the film’s direction and purpose always been similar?

We have a very fortunate working relationship, which is rare since we’re close friends and have often been under immense pressure and stress, but we haven’t let it affect our friendship. We are multi-skilled and share responsibilities. We both film, direct and edit. We co-directed and filmed the film together. When it came to To Skin a Cat, Colwyn took on the role of editing the documentary.

Photo courtesy of Scholars and Gentlemen.

Photo courtesy of Scholars and Gentlemen.

What was the first film project you ever created?

In 2004, Colwyn and myself, although living in different cities and doing different things decided to take a wild chance at a grant for amateur filmmakers created by ETV to unearth interesting content in provinces beyond Gauteng and the Western Cape. Colwyn and I have always had a fascination for cultural practices in South Africa, and how culture finds a new place in the 21st Century, as well as wildlife and we produced a 25-minute documentary called Downtown Hunter which followed the story of a traditional sangoma who legally hunted his own animal products for his trade. It addressed keeping alive ancient cultural practices in the modern world, where wildlife and ecosystems are more threatened than in the past.

Excluding, To Skin a Cat, what is the most rewarding film project you have completed? 

We’ve been really fortunate to attract some amazing clients over the years, and working with the likes of Prince Harry and his organisation Sentebale in Lesotho, with Doctors Without Borders as well as the national cricket and rugby teams. But really, Downtown Hunter has always been a special project for me, because it was our first foray into longer-format documentary film-making, and the subject matter, the investigations, the places we went to, was really the start of a fulfilling career.

It is a long, hard road to get to this level of film-making. What always managed to get you through the low points, the times at which you wondered if you could do it/whether it was worth it or not. A family member? A dream? What gives you the drive to work so hard?

Well, To Skin a Cat deals with a lot of fascinating content and characters, but at the heart of it is the reward of potentially contributing to a greater good in the world, and helping through our art form to protect a majestic and endangered species. And that has really kept us going. The film was lucky to coincide with the inceptions of Pantheras Furs for Life Project, and so there was a remarkable outpouring of interest and support to the campaign, and therefor to the film. It is an independent film and all of the money to produce the film has been fundraised, largely from the public, from all over the world. We just couldn’t let them down too.

What specific event/events led you to decide to create To Skin a Cat? I noticed in the fundraiser trailer that there was a collared leopard that went missing and (as far as I interpreted) was found poached. Was this part of the drive?

The loss of Timbo, a leopard born in &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve was certainly a galvanizing factor, but the interest in the story really began with the arrest in 2009 of a traditional tailor named Mlungu Ngubane. He was arrested with 200 leopard skins, that were identified as coming from 92 different leopards. The case against him was dropped. He had been arrested two years before with 40 odd skins and the case was also dropped against him. We learned about the case in a tiny snippet of an article in The Mercury newspaper. In the article it mentioned the skins were tailored into garments for the Shembe church. Colwyn had filmed a Shembe gathering some years before and noticed the prolific number of leopard skins, and so we decided then to investigate, thinking there may be an opportunity to make another documentary together. Little did we know the journey we would go on.

Where does the majority of the demand for leopard products come from? Is the Shembe church the largest consumer, or are skins shipped elsewhere? Are organs and bones used in traditional rituals like lion products are?

I can’t comment on the other body parts of the leopard as I don’t know. But the Shembe church are the greatest demand for the leopard pelts, as men in the church adorn traditional Zulu attire during religious ceremonies. The Zulu royal family historically wear the skins as a sign of nobility, but the Zulu royal family isn’t very big. At the largest gatherings of the year at the largest faction of the Shembe church at Ebuhleni, near Inanda, just outside Durban, we have seen over 1,000 skins on the display by dancers. Bearing in mind there are perhaps 5,000 leopards left in South Africa.

Why does the Shembe Church use leopard skin in their ceremonies? 

The Nazareth Baptist Church (Alternatively called “The Nazarite Church” “iBandla lamaNazaretha”) is an African Initiated Church founded by Isaiah Shembe 1910.UbuNazaretha is pure and independent religion which originates in Africa. It reveres Shembe as an African Messiah and emphasizes the Ten Commandments. It is a marriage of the customs of the Zulu people and Christianity. Leaders within the church are seen as nobility in the faith, similar to that of the nobility in Zulu culture.

Shembe Church members in traditional leopard skins. Photo courtesy of Scholars and Gentlemen.

Shembe Church members in traditional leopard skins. Photo courtesy of Scholars and Gentlemen.

If the skins were illegally obtained by the church, why are they not seized by police? Is there no way to prove if the skins came from a legally killed leopard or a poached leopard?

It seems from our investigations that the church has grown so much, and that gatherings of followers are so large, that the SAPS, especially the department involved in wildlife, just do not have manpower or ability to facilitate this.

How are the leopards typically poached? Snare, rifle or poison?

From our research it seems snaring and poisoning.

Do you feel that a film can help solve the problem? Why? How can it help overwhelm the demand from a  church with so many followers and a ‘need’ for so many skins?

Film is a powerful tool of communication. It quickly and successfully can deliver very understandable content. And within the digital age, more people have access to movies and information than ever before. There is also more room for a galvanized movement in today’s world. So we hope the film will certainly contribute to creating awareness and change within the church and society at large.

You’ve spent six years on the To Skin a Cat production, correct? How much of this time was spent in the field, and how much time was spent producing and editing?

It’s hard to tell. We spent the first two or three years filming regularly. Then there were many hiccups and things that stalled the project and the film. We also had huge issues around funding the film ourselves, so once we entered post-production, most of the funding required was for other parties such as composing, online editing, animation, sound design whereas the filming and editing we could go unpaid for, but not when it came to outsourcing.

Greg Lomas (Co-director/co-producer of the film To Skin a Cat) with one of the film's many interviewees, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, holding one of the fake leopard skins from Panthera's Furs for Life project. Photo courtesy of Scholars and Gentlemen

Greg Lomas (Co-director/co-producer of the film To Skin a Cat) with one of the film’s many interviewees, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, holding one of the fake leopard skins from Panthera’s Furs for Life project. Photo courtesy of Scholars and Gentlemen

What is your favorite memory regarding the creation of this film?

That’s a really tough question. This film has taken us to so many incredible places; from the hearts of the Shembe religion and culture to the depths of the African bush, tracking and collaring leopards, to Beijing, Shanghai and Cixi to learn about the fake fur trade. Although I spent a lot of time as a youngster in game reserves, I only ever saw a leopard once and I treasured that memory. When we started working with Panthera we were granted unbelievable access to Tristan’s life at Phinda, and I’d say any number of the collaring of leopards that took place is my favourite highlight. To be in the presence of such a majestic and powerful animal.

After its presentation at Durban, how can our readers access a copy of the film for purchase or viewing?

Right now we’re just focused on the premiere of the Durban International Film Festival. This is a documentary coming out of KwaZulu Natal, made by people from KwaZulu Natal. Not only are we hoping it will put KwaZulu Natal on the map in regards to storytelling and content, but also in terms of film-making and a growing skill set and industry in Durban. So all our attention is on that. After that we hope to sell the film to a broadcaster and tour international film festivals. People can keep up to date on DVD’s and screening on our website after the DIFF.

How can contributions to your future projects be made?

We don’t have any yet, but keep an eye on

How can contributions to leopard conservation be made? What organizations would you recommend donating to?

Look into Panthera’s Furs for Life Project for donations which is also sponsored by Peace Parks and Cartier:

What do you get out of all of this? Why do you do what you do?

In regards to To Skin a Cat, it would obviously be nice to sell the film to a broadcaster. But really we want to make sure we’ve contributed through our film-making to a worthy cause and that the film played an integral role in the fight to save southern Africa’s leopards. That’s more than enough for me.


Read more on the movie here:

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