Review: Waiting for Giraffes (2016)

Waiting for Giraffes (2016)

Directed by: Marco De Stefanis | 84 minutes | documentary

In ‘Waiting for Giraffes’ we follow veterinarian Sami Khader, the owner of the Qalqilya Zoo. It is the only zoo on Palestinian territory, a fact that makes running the park no mean feat. When the Second Intifada (an armed uprising by the Arab population against Israel) broke out in 2001, the Qalqilya Zoo was also attacked by Israeli troops. The clatter of guns cost the local giraffe dearly: the animal, panicked by the gunfire and explosions, ran into a pillar and died. That is at least the most heard and most likely (but not the only) story about the death of the stately animal.

When we see Sami reminisce about that time and hear stories about the deplorable state the zoo was in at the time, we also see that fifteen years later, very little has changed. The cages are still old and cramped, which means that animals are even remotely incapable of displaying natural behaviour. Sami sees that too. Hence, he puts all his heart and soul into the struggle to direct the Qalqilya Zoo towards the path of modernization. We follow the Palestinian veterinarian in a decisive period: an inspection led by the Dutchman Marjo Hoedemaker and representatives of the much more modern Jerusalem Zoo must decide whether the Qalqilya Zoo can join EAZA (the association of European zoos). If that succeeds, Sami’s and many visitors’ wish will come back into the picture: giraffes in Palestine’s only zoo.

Director Marco de Stefanis, however, portrays in a subtle and confrontational way that there are many political-bureaucratic obstacles in the way. The zoo is largely located in the so-called C-zone, which means that any change requires permission from the Israeli authorities and the Palestinian administration, which is again engaged in a battle with Hamas. A visit by Sami and a few zookeepers to the zoo in Jerusalem shows how the relationships are: hardly any possibilities at one, a modern zoo that meets all welfare requirements at the other. Even more shocking is the moment when Sami is shown images from Copenhagen. There a healthy giraffe is killed and fed to the lions. The reason: the Scandinavian zoo wants to avoid the risk of inbreeding.

‘Waiting for Giraffes’ is therefore not only the story of an ailing zoo run by people who mainly get stuck in good intentions, it is also a clever allegory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like the zoo animals, the Palestinian residents of the West Bank are far from free. They are locked in their walled world. Only Israel determines when and under what conditions they can leave their territory. In that regard, the discussion surrounding building a marine aquarium at Qalqilya Zoo is as touching as it is painful; the zoo wants to build the aquarium so that children in Qalqilya, which is only thirty kilometers from the Israeli coast but where Palestinians cannot just go, can still see something of marine life. The desire for a giraffe expressed in the film can also be seen as a metaphor for the Palestinian desire for freedom. By the way, De Stefanis doesn’t put that message on it very thickly. He mainly sounds between the lines and will mainly be noticed by the good listener.

What remains a little underexposed is the role that the zoo occupies in the community. Is it an important place of relaxation where people can get away from everyday problems for a while? Or does the park leave the majority of the population cold? There are some conversations and short interviews with local residents, but they are too fragmented to really say anything about the deeper relationship between the zoo and the locals. Although Sami Khader does achieve a few things for the Qalqilya Zoo through his unbridled efforts, the film as a whole is not happy. What dominates is the image of a torn region, in which political reconciliation is still a long way off. And that is a pity, especially when you see that the Palestinian employees of the Qalqilya Zoo and their Israeli colleagues from Jerusalem do enter into a dialogue and, above all, treat each other in a friendly and respectful way.

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