In its simplest form, the To Skin a Cat narrative can be structured along the following line:
- Establish Dickerson as key character
- Introduce audiences to his world and the leopards he studies
- Outline his concerns and then substantiate them with data
- Outline his plan to create change
- Follow him as he educates himself on the Shembe Church and the approach its followers have towards leopards.
- Interviews with Zulu historians, Zulu academics and the Zulu King to gain further insight into the leopards in Zulu culture
- Follow Dickerson as he sources materials and patterns to develop his ultimate fake fur
- Meet traditional tailors and produce the final product.
- Dickersons mission to meet with the leader of the Church and his subsequent challenge in convincing him to endorse his plan.
- Preparation for the pilgrimage which includes distribution to tailors and dealers in skins as well as equipping young men who cannot afford skins with these fakes.
- Interviews on the pilgrimage , assessing whether people can tell the fake fur apart and asking if they would buy it instead of the real thing.
- Conclusion, in which Dickerson reviews whether he has been successful or not and makes predictions for the future.
The film begins by establishing Dickerson as our primary protagonist. His character, as both likeable guide, activist and respectable scientist are outlined from the very beginning. Dickerson will act as the primary guide through the film (initiating interviews, meetings and action sequences) and audiences will be invited to invest in the challenges, successes and disappointments of his quest to protect the species he loves. We see Dickerson at work and at home in Mkuze game reserve.
Audiences meet key leopards he is monitoring. These leopards, under constant threat of being poached, will form a critical sub-plot to be returned to throughout the film. Audience investment in individual cats is also critical, so that when viewers are presented with crowds dressed in skins, they are able to see more than just a cultural adornment; they can also make out what was once a living and breathing leopard.
The introduction to Dickerson in turn gradually develops into establishing, for the viewer, a clear understanding of the predicament leopards are facing. Through dialogue with Dickerson, a clear picture is presented of the pressure Dickersons leopards face in Phinda. We follow as he collects snares, visits local villages to retrieve leopard parts and eventually attends a large Shembe gathering in which viewers come up close and personal, for the first time, with leopard skin outfits and a direct visual confirmation of the extent of this problem. Dickerson imparts the scientific facts confirming the nature of this challenge.
Dickersons ultimate goal is the successful adoption of his fake furs by the church, thereby radically reducing the pressure put on leopards. But before he sees that goal achieved, there are a number of challenges he must over come. Foremost of these, and this is one of the key themes underpinning this film, is the need to understand both sides of the story when it comes to poaching leopards and wearing their skins. Without an appreciative understanding of the people whose support he hopes to gain (the Shembe, poachers, traditional tailors) Dickersons project will be doomed to fail.
Dickerson strives to understand how the church works and why its members desire leopard skins. This involves numerous meetings and interviews in which he patiently gains the perspective of the people using the leopard. To understand the historical significance of the leopard within the greater Zulu culture, Dickerson meets historians and Zulu academics. What motivates the use of the leopard skin knock offs that already exist and how open would people be to a fake fur? What would it take for his fur to be endorsed by the average Shembe?
This section of the film will also include meetings with King Zwelethini, the reigning Zulu monarch, to establish his approach and feelings on the wearing of a skin by churchgoers, that has traditionally been reserved for the royal family.
Dickerson also must establish just how the problem has become so intense. Interviewing wildlife and law officials, the film examines why and how the Shembe gatherings, in which hundreds of illegal skins are openly sold and danced in, are overlooked by the law.
Secondly, Dickerson must find or create the perfect fur. He will meet locally based costume designers and correspond with international fashion houses in his quest to secure, in large numbers, a fake fur that is both realistic and affordable. He will have to meet with traditional tailors to ensure that his fake fur can be tailored into a perfect costume replica. Dickerson will also have to ensure that his furs are cost effective. A real leopard skin costs R3000 which means Dickersons furs need to come in way beneath that in order to be attractive enough to give up the real thing.
Third will be Dickersons most difficult task: meeting and convincing The Shembe, the powerful leader of the church, to endorse his scheme. The word of The Shembe is holy lore unto his people, many of who believe that he has the ability to increase leopard numbers at will. If Dickerson can show The Shembe that his plan is in the interest of not just the vanishing leopards, but also the church which will soon be out of skins- then the battle will be half won.
Lastly Dickerson must put his fake furs to the test. This forms the climax of the film, the highly anticipated moment of truth. The date is set for mid January, when hundreds of thousands of Shembe men and women undertake the annual pilgrimage to the mountain of Nhlangagazi. Here thousands of dancers will don their leopard skins, while many more seek either new or first skins. By placing his skins with dealers and tailors, and integrating them with young men joining the dances for the first time, Dickerson will be able to test his theory; that a cheap, highly realistic fake leopard fur is the answer to saving this magnificent big cat in South Africa.