"The giraffe is stronger than the lion, and their feces smell good!" declares 11-year-old Ziad in class in the opening scene of Giraffada, the debut feature film by Palestinian self-taught filmmaker Rani Massalha.
The giraffe — a symbol of peace and beauty for the director — and the lion — representing the ferociousness of the Israeli occupation —frame the narrative of Giraffada, a play on the words giraffe and Intifada (uprising).
Set in the West Bank town of Qalqilya, the film follows the young loner Ziad — son of the town's zoo veterinarian — who spends most of his time with the giraffes at the zoo.
On one night during an Israeli raid on the town, the male giraffe panics and dies hitting his head on the cage, leaving pregnant female giraffe Rita depressed without a mate and refusing food. Ziad, his father Yacine, along with a French journalist they met along the way set out to find a mate for Rita. But the only possibility is to take one of the six available in Tel Aviv Zoo.
Giraffada uses the point of view of the child to tell the story of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in a symbolic and poetic manner, while showing the hardships faced by Palestinians — the raids, checkpoints, and humiliations by Israeli soldiers. The film has depth in not only condemning the Israeli state and its soldiers, but showing the corruption of the Palestinian Authority through the character of the zoo manager, who spends the zoo's budget on an extravagant birthday party for himself and refuses to buy the medicines needed for the animals.
The director specifically wanted to tell the story through Ziad since he wanted the film to appeal to Palestinian children, simplifying the conflict through the lens of a child's understanding. "People always say the Palestinian Israeli conflict is complicated, but it's not complicated," he explained.
Inspired by a real-life incident that took place in 2002 when an Israeli raid caused the death of a giraffe in Qalqilya zoo, Massalha came up with the concept for Giraffada. Originally the director hired French scriptwriter Xavier Nemo to write the script. Then Massalha adapted it to fit better the story of Palestine.
"I got inspired by this [incident] to create a metaphor about the Israeli Palestinian conflict," Massalha told Ahram Online. "The giraffe is the world's tallest animal, but even this animal is shorter than the separation wall created by Israel. I always had this dream to make a giraffe walk next to the wall."
And he did it. In the one scene of Giraffada, Ziad, his father and the French journalist walk beside the giraffe next to the wall and into the town — a moving scene where everyone stops what they are doing, even prayer, to stare at the majestic giraffe.
To Massalha, the giraffe is a peaceful animal that has an elevated point of view and serves as a strong metaphor — especially in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — for seeing the whole picture.
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.
While the film succeeds in its endeavours in most aspects, more attention could have been given to the depth of some characters, such as the zoo manager and the journalist. Also, the scenes showing Israeli soldiers harassing Palestinians as well as foreigners felt exaggerated, even though the stories that circulate about what happens at checkpoints all over Palestine are more grotesque than the incidents portrayed in Giraffada. Perhaps a deeper treatment of such incidents would have better served the film's overall narrative.
A highlight of the film was the seemingly insane character of the street vendor selling peanuts (played by renowned actor Mohamed Bakry) who showed moments of wisdom at different points in the film and served as a necessary counterpoint, providing depth and philosophical insight to the narrative.
Giraffada is, no doubt, a highly enjoyable film with an original plot that tells the Palestinian story in a novel way.
Screenings take place at 3.30pm, 6.30pm and 9.30pm at Odeon Cinema
4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, downtown, Cairo
This review was previously published during the 6th edition of Panorama of the European Film.