Smuggling a giraffe from an Israeli safari park to the only zoo in the occupied West Bank is the cute premise behind “Giraffada,” Rani Massalha’s slight but appealing debut feature, whose title is a play on “giraffe” and “intifada.” Pushing the caper element and limiting some of the more standard life-in-Palestine scenes would have made for a tighter pic, but even so, there’s a pleasant sweetness to this tale of a boy who urges his father, the zoo’s veterinarian, to find a mate for a recently soloed ruminant. Result is ideal for kids’ showcases and smallscreens.
Ten-year-old Ziad (Ahmed Bayatra) is a loner who prefers the company of giraffes Rita and Brownie to that of his bullying schoolmates. Dad Yacine (Saleh Bakri) is the vet of Qalqilya Zoo, which means Ziad is in the privileged position of feeding his beloved animal friends. During an Israeli rocket attack, Brownie panics and injures himself; there’s nothing Yacine can do with his limited supplies, and the animal dies. The trauma causes Rita to refuse food, and Ziad makes a promise to God that he’ll go on hunger strike until the giraffe starts eating again.
Yacine has few options: The zoo has no money to buy a new giraffe, and even if it did, there’s no way all the paperwork could be filed quickly enough to get the animal to the West Bank in time. There’s only one solution: Persuade Israeli friend and fellow vet Yohav (Roschdy Zem) to help them kidnap a giraffe from the Ramat Gan safari park, near Tel Aviv.
Apparently the story is loosely based on a real incident from 2002 (though the outcome was less successful). Massalha includes a superfluous figure in the form of French press photographer Laura (Laure de Clermont), whose belief in the Palestinian cause and attraction to Yacine lead her to join the escapade. Perhaps her role would have been more essential had the helmer pushed the sense of risky adventure, but as it stands, the tension is minimal, and while the finale provides a certain thrill, it would have been better supported by a gradual, steady build in excitement.
Much more could have been done with parallels between caged animals going crazy from rocket attacks and the Palestinians themselves just as the infamous Wall is nearing completion, though perhaps Massalha chose to soft-pedal this aspect so as not to appear overly polemical. Scenes at the border crossing are routine, but a sequence set in an underpass, in which Yacine is confronted by hostile Israeli soldiers, has genuine power. Also noteworthy is how the director shows Yacine’s frustration at having to combat not just the Occupation, but also corrupt Palestinians in the guise of zoo director Marwan (Loutof Nuweiser).
The presence of two powerhouse actors will certainly help bookings, and Bakri’s unfailing charm could convince even the most immovable curmudgeon to smuggle wild mammals across dangerous borders. Zem’s presence as an Israeli is a surprise, his Hebrew-accented English only partly slipping into French elocution. Bakri’s father, Mohammed, has a small, welcome role as a peanut and banana vendor, playing the classic Jacobean fool whose antics can’t fully disguise cunning wisdom learned through adversity.
Most of the giraffe sequences were done via green screens, and while trained eyes will notice the digital trickery, most viewers won’t be bothered. Other tech credits are solid.