Review: Waiting for Giraffes (2016)

Directed by: Marco De Stefanis | 84 minutes | documentary

In “Waiting for Giraffes,” we follow veterinarian Sami Khader, owner of the Qalqilya Zoo. It is the only zoo on Palestinian territory, a fact that makes running the park no picnic. When the Second Intifada (an armed uprising by the Arab population against Israel) ignited in 2001, the Qalqilya Zoo was also under fire by Israeli forces. The clatter of guns cost the local giraffe dear: the animal, in blind panic from the gunshots and explosions, ran into a pillar and died. At least that is the most heard and most likely (but not the only) story that is circulating about the death of the stately animal.

When we see Sami reminisce about that time and hear him stories about the deplorable state of the zoo at the time, we see at the same time that about fifteen years later very little has changed. The cages are still old and cramped, which means that animals are not even remotely able to display natural behavior. Sami sees that too. Hence, he throws 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 partnership of European zoos). If that succeeds, the heart’s desire of Sami and many visitors will come into the picture again: giraffes in the only zoo in Palestine.

However, director Marco de Stefanis portrays in a subtle and confrontational way that there are many political-bureaucratic bears on the road. 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 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 for one, a modern zoo with all welfare requirements for the other. Even more shocking is the moment when Sami gets to see images from Copenhagen. There, a healthy giraffe is killed and presented 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 mostly 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 trapped in their walled-in world. Only Israel determines when and under what conditions they can leave their area of ​​residence. In that respect, the discussion surrounding building a marine aquarium in 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 some of the marine life. The longing 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 does not put that message on it very clearly. He mainly sounds between the lines and will mainly be noticed by the good listener.

What remains a bit underexposed is the role that the zoo plays in the community. Is it an important place of relaxation where people can get away from everyday problems? Or does the park leave most of the population largely 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 achieves a few things for the Qalqilya Zoo through his unbridled efforts, the film as a whole is not cheerful. What is dominant is the image of a torn region, in which political reconciliation is still a long way off. And that is a shame, especially when you see that the Palestinian employees of the Qalqilya Zoo and their Israeli colleagues from Jerusalem do enter into a dialogue and are above all friendly and respectful with each other.

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