One of the most poignant films of 2013 has been Rani Massalha’s Girrafada. Though the film has appealed kids, it is a great view for people of all age groups and nationalities observes Manju Ramanan, Editor Filmfare Middle East.
Adding to the films at recent film festivals be it the Abu Dhabi Film Festival or the Dubai International Film Festival, that base itself on migration and the human element in it, Giraffada follows the same route. “ People migrate to different parts of the world not necessarily for a better life or earning more money, sometimes migration happens for simple reasons or reasons related to honour and compassion,” says Hisham Zaman, the director of Before Snowfall. The talented Norwegian-Iraqi film maker bases his film on the story of a teenager from the Iraqi part of Kurdistan to Istanbul, Berlin and Oslo as the boy tracks his sister, who has run away with her beau rather than submit to an arranged marriage. The Kurdish-Iraqi boy comes of age and is obliged to hunt his sister down and kill her – as an example of honour killing.
Giraffada on the other hand plays cleverly on its own title – that is a cross between giraffe the animal and intifada the restriction of crossing the border. The story (that is loosely based on a real incident though the real incident wasn’t as successful), follows a ten year old child who is the son of a zoo-keeper who is fascinated by the giraffe duo in his father’s zoo. Ten-year-old Ziad (Ahmed Bayatra) is a loner who prefers the company of giraffes Rita and Brownie to that of his schoolmates who keep bullying him in the gulleys calling him names. His father Yacine, played by the hugely talented Saleh Bakri is the vet of the Qalqilya Zoo. So Ziad has the privilege to feed all his animal friends especially the giraffe duo. The zoo is located in the West Bank of the Palestine border to Israel. While Yacine struggles to keep up the best standards in his zoo including demanding better living conditions and medicines for his animals, his owners have a commercial sense in mind and aren’t really worried about the animals. His counterpart across the border though lives in luxury and indulgence and the two veterinarians exchange phone calls and advice.
Once during an Israeili rocket attack the male Giraffe Brownie panics and injures himself and since Yacine cannot help the animal owing to the limited supply of medicines, the giraffe dies. The trauma causes his mate Rita to refuse food and she grows weaker and weaker – and she is pregnant as well. Ziad on the other hand pained by the loss of his beloved giraffe takes a vow that he will go on hunger strike until the giraffe starts eating again.
This leaves Yacine to look for a solution to the problem with a limited number of options. The zoo has no money to buy a mate for Rita and even if they did the paper work would take so much time that the animal’s life would be threatened given the fact that she refuses food. So there is but one solution – to persuade his Israeli zoo keeper friend and fellow vet Yohav (Roschdy Zem) to help them kidnap a giraffe from the Ramat Gan safari park, near Tel Aviv. Helping him is a French press photographer Laura (Laure de Clermont), whose belief in the Palestinian cause and attraction to Yacine lead him to join her in the mission. Her presence in the film lends the softness of the female element to the film because the child is essentially motherless.
Scenes at the border crossing are filmed with great precision and are reminiscent of border crossings across the world – the film also explores the anger both sides have against each other manifest in language, the border security force confronting common men like Yacine who visit sick animals across the border as well as corruption within the system through the character of Yachine’s zoo director Marwan (Loutof Nuweiser). Bakri’s father, Mohammed, has a small, welcome role as a peanut and banana vendor outside the zoo.
The last scene of the film has most people in tears. The poignant scene when the Giraffe walks the border to be brought into Yacine’s zoo is set in music and no dialogues. As was discussed during the Abu Dhabi Film Festival, most of the giraffe sequences were done via green screens, and digitally managed. While children find an instant connect to the film in terms of the animal and its story, the film strikes a universal chord with all who love good cinema – that rises above any regional parity of difference in social contexts. An important although sidelined element of the film is the relationship between the two doctors — Yacine and his colleague and friend working in Tel Aviv Zoo — which encapsulates the peaceful relations that exist between many Palestinians and Israelis on a personal level, though not an institutional one. The director believes that these relationships, that can be further developed through civil society groups, are the only way out of the current situation.
Director Massalha after the screening of the movie did admit that he created the whole film through the eyes of the child because innocence and being a child ‘is very difficult in Palestine and that he wanted the world to see that. The wall that surrounds the occupied West Bank is nine meters high. I thought, even a giraffe is not as tall as that wall. It is therefore symbolic.”
The child star Ziad, played by Ahmed Bayatra is related to Massalha and being his cousin helped. “ It was easy for me to be hard on him as I trained him.” But he does admit that it was tougher to deal with the animal than direct the child. “It was much harder to direct the giraffe than the kid. Working on this film was the first time he had ever left his village, and he worked very hard on this film,” he adds.
The multi-talented Saleh Bakri, who confessed after the film’s Middle East premiere in Abu Dhabi that it was the first time that he’d watched the film himself. “I loved it. I loved the story, and most importantly I believed in the story.” Bakri was also at the Dubai International Film Festival supporting his younger brother Adam who starred in DIFF’s opening film Omar directed by Hany Abu-Assad.