Time spent with cats is never wasted also known as Ixesha elichithwe neekati aliyo ncitha xesha is a black-and-white art drama from writer-director Clive Will. Shot in the Northern Cape during one of its worst droughts, the landscape is dry, harsh and barren with an air of suffering. Having taken 3 years to shoot and a year to edit, this epic art odyssey represents an arduous undertaking – one reflected in the journey of the found objects artist at its core. Joe constructs a life-size helicopter using abandoned items from his village and the surrounding wilderness. Drawing the derision of locals, who think his structure is designed to enable him to fly, their suspicion turns into envy when a serious art buyer wants to make an offer. Losing his job at an abattoir and shunned from his community, Joe’s forced to drag his creation into the wilderness.
While shot in colour, Time spent with cats is never wasted was always intended to be released as a black-and-white art film. It’s a visual masterpiece, transforming South Africa’s Northern Cape region into a bleak, dusty and otherworldly place of rich contrasts, surreal majesty and political poetry. Every shot is an artwork, rich in symbolism and vividly photographed to tell a story within a story. Being South African, the contemplative, earthy, seemingly mundane, moody photography has political undertones and reverberates the transportive work of the late David Goldblatt. The difference being that this portrait’s fluidity and surreal dimension transcend the hard reality to sink into a more poetic paradigm.
The film starts with an extended long shot of a desert landscape with an abandoned tricycle as a drummie troupe follows an old sedan with a speaker mounted on its roof until they march past. A curious piece of performance art, it sets the scene for Time spent with cats is never wasted, “stage fright” mistakes and all. This is about as niche as it gets when it comes to art film: black-and-white, closing in on 3 hours, a “foreign” language (Xhosa), set in Africa, sparsely scripted, deliberately slow-moving, coarse language and featuring naturalistic performances with some disturbing imagery. Given these provocative yet constraining elements, this is an incredibly bold feature film debut by Clive Will. The auteur’s sheer audacity or self-indulgence has definitely made an impression with Time spent with cats is never wasted making official selection at film festivals around the world.
Unfortunately, while this brilliant artful endeavour has made an attention-grabbing splash, it’s so alienating that you could easily justify screening the film on loop in an art museum. Beyond its otherworldly black-and-white reinvention of a Karoo town, distance is created by its raw poetry with animals being slaughtered and various bodily fluids being expelled. Time spent with cats is never wasted’s visuals are laden with beauty, emboldened by symbolism yet frustrated by a bleak and unwelcome atmosphere. While open to interpretation, it’s a challenging viewing experience being reflective of South Africa’s most damning social issues such as: the treatment of women and children, abuse of power, substance abuse, mob justice, theft, sexual violence and violence.
The documentary Hutchinson Shunted exposes how a once proud railroad community has become a long-forgotten backwater ghost town. Abandoned, frozen in time and left for dead by new order power brokers, the film unpacks the town’s infrastructural and social challenges, starting with a powerful before and after snapshot of just how desperate the situation has become. Taking this same dilapidated perspective, Time spent with cats is never wasted has an equally loaded political undercurrent as a struggling artist attempts to make a living out of his obvious talents. Being treated like a stranger in town, the epic natural vistas, slow-boiling tension and small town politics echo Five Fingers for Marseilles.
Will’s slow cinema has a western undercurrent, owing to the expanse of the cinematography, the dry “tumbleweed” landscape setting, ghost town economy, winds of change and apparent lawlessness. The wild Victoria West horizon features regularly, often underlining a massive sky where the irony of Joe’s helicopter’s failure to lift off resounds. Speaking to the enforced limits of his creativity, the allegorical Time spent with cats is never wasted hints at broader issues relating to the Chinese idiom of “the tallest trees catch the most wind”. Coming from an impoverished community, goodwill quickly evaporates when Joe’s individuality is misinterpreted and he’s not willing to give the village a stake in his project.
When it comes to storytelling, there’s very little spoon-feeding, embroidering its stark visuals with enough detail to compel through mood and subtext. While the rich symbolism ushers in allusions to some of the most heinous kinds of sexual crimes with a henhouse raid and a chance meeting, it’s always suggested but never spelled out. The sparse script communicates Joe’s desperate situation as alcohol and prostitutes can’t fill the void but the finer details are fairly ambiguous. Constantly assured that he doesn’t even know what he’s done wrong, the criminal implications and his scapegoat status are left open-ended. This left-to-the-wind style of storytelling creates a dark, enigmatic quality but does come across as elusive and scattershot even.
“They’re right, I’ll never fly…”
Chris Hadebe is new to the world of acting, changing hats from his job in an industry requiring heavy machinery, to live through Joe’s experiences. Weaving his way into almost every scene, it’s a calculated risk that pays off, offering a naturalistic and experiential honesty to the performance. Limited somewhat by the lack of dialogue, the conversation becomes more important between actor and director as this character’s gritty odyssey unfolds. Untainted by preconceived ego, Hadebe’s performance is there to be sculpted and he gives his all.
While there isn’t much documented evidence, Freud is attributed with saying that “time spent with cats is never wasted”. While Will’s film features several cats, it’s anything but an animal lover’s film. Much like the juxtaposition of and disdain for the Mona Lisa painting, the title’s subversion is wry and proportional to the degree of desperation of the scraggly strays within. Time spent with cats is never wasted injects racist archive media that plays across TV screens in taverns and homes, haunting the story with flashes of systemic othering and oppression. The background layering creates an awkward tension, amplified by the luxuriating privilege belying the title.
Time spent with cats is never wasted is an artful, harsh, poetic, sprawling and elegantly photographed dramatic epic that’s steeped in timely themes. A niche black-and-white and strictly arthouse production, it clocks in at almost 3 hours, is overlong, muddled, slow-moving and rather alienating with some disturbing visuals in spite of its poetic license. Smart juxtaposition offers enough ambiguity to insinuate through mood and symbolism without overextending into finger-pointing or gratuity, generating a great deal of political charge. The bleak atmosphere and haunting slow cinema experience demands one’s patience and an appreciation for subtext. In this light and for maximum enjoyment, the provocative Time spent with cats is never wasted should be treated like art rather than entertainment.
The bottom line: Epic