2014 TIFF Kids Feature: "Giraffada"

Thursday April 10, 2014

The 2013 film Giraffada is the story of a giraffe-obsessed boy and his veterinarian father, who spend their days caring for plants, animals, and each other while living in the occupied West Bank.

Young Ziad (Ahmad Bayatra) doesn't fit in with other children, but he's lucky enough to have close contact with Rita and Brownie, the giraffes who live at the Qalqilya Zoo where his father Yacine (Saleh Bakri) is on staff. Yacine struggles to do what's best for his animal charges, constantly butting heads against a zoo manager who saves money by painting a donkey to look like a zebra, expecting bears to survive on carrots, and providing his vet with out-of-date medications.

When a nearby attack leads to tragedy inside the zoo, Yacine has to promise Ziad a miracle that he's not sure he can deliver. With the help of a French photo-journalist and an Israeli zoo vet, they challenge checkpoints and risk everything to give Rita a reason to live.

Considering its setting, this is a surprisingly gentle film. There are certainly tense moments - like when Yacine is stopped by aggressive guards who suspect his large medical bag is a bomb - but it's mostly a film about doing the very best you can for the world and for the ones you love, no matter what your situation. I appreciated that director Rani Massalha kept the focus on one small family and the impact the conflict had on them.

Saleh Bakri is intensely likeable as Yacine, and I was pleased to learn after the fact that the charmingly stubborn peanut-seller Hassan is played by Bakri's real-life father Mohammad Bakri. Bayatra is a promising young actor, and endearing as Ziad. I would have liked even more giraffe and other animal screen-time, but that could just be me.

The "True Story" of Giraffada

The film opens with a title card that says it was "freely inspired by a true story," and the "inspired by" part is key. I went looking on the internet, and this isn't a situation where a filmmaker has taken a true story and tweaked it a bit - it's more of a "what-if" film.

In reality, there is a Qalqilya Zoo with a very dedicated veterinarian, and numerous animals, including giraffes, have suffered and died due to the human-created violence around them. The animal death which takes place during the film is essentially the "true" part of the story, but many more deaths have followed, and the hopeful second half of the film never took place. Here's a good summary from Lebanon's The Daily Star, and an in-depth 2003 article on the zoo from The New York Times.

I have no problem with the film creating the story it does, and applaud using fiction to imagine how the world could be better. But I worry that most audience members will misunderstand the title card, and leave the theatre thinking that the real-life Qalqilya Zoo giraffes got their happy ending. They did not.

Preparing Young Audiences

If you're going to see Giraffada with your children or students, I recommend prepping them with a bit of an explanation on the situation in the West Bank, if they aren't already familiar. You don't need an intimate understanding of the conflict to follow the movie, but viewers who don't know anything about it may be waiting for an explanation that doesn't come, and be distracted from the story by wondering about the purpose of the wall and the presence of armed soldiers in Ziad's town.

Upcoming TIFF Kids Screening for Giraffada

  • Monday April 14, 10am
Giraffada is presented with subtitles, and TIFF suggests that it's suitable for young people in Grades 5-8.

Visit http://tiff.net/festivals/tiffkidsfestival/films/giraffada

Connect Online: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Wattpad | Goodreads | Google+

TIFF Kids 2014 Feature Documentary: "School of Babel"

Tuesday April 08, 2014

Directed by Julie Bertuccelli, School of Babel (La Cour de Babel) is a 2013 observational documentary from France. It focuses on one year in teacher Brigitte Cervoni's "reception class" ("une classe d’accueil") at La Grange-aux-Belles school in Paris.

From www.lacourdebabel.com
The reception class serves as a landing ground and safe haven for students who have arrived in France with a limited (or completely absent) understanding of the language. The students are anywhere from 11 to 15 years old, but far more striking than the age range are the differences in their lives before they arrived in their new home. They come from all over the world - Northern Ireland, England, Chile, Brazil, Mauritania, China, Serbia, the Ukraine, and elsewhere. There are refugees and asylum seekers, a boy whose family moved for economic reasons and a girl who was sent away by her mother to escape oppression and abuse from her father's side of the family. One talented young cellist is in France to attend a prestigious conservatory; one young woman is there because her family believes bilingualism is the key to future opportunities.

Bertuccelli chose to keep the film within the confines of the class dynamic. While home life is talked about and the audience gets to meet some of the parents/guardians during teacher interviews, most of the time is spent on conversations between the students, or on occasionally tense teacher/student interactions. Sometimes the class is talking about their situation, such as when they are asked to reflect on the last day before they left their old life, or when they bring up the problems of fitting in at a school where others look down on them, or their struggles with the language. But then they get into other topics including their plans for the future and a lengthy and heated discussion about religion. The reception class also makes a film of their own, resulting in TIFF audiences finding themselves at a kids film festival watching students go to a kids film festival.

My Thoughts

School of Babel is a wonderful character study, especially because it looks at teens in a hard transition. Everyone at that age is on a mission to find themselves and their path; these kids have to do it in an unfamiliar land using words which frequently fail them. For me, the film was also a jarring reminder to be grateful that I was born into relative freedom, and grew up absorbing one of the most popular languages in the world (it also made me feel really guilty that after all those years of mandatory French classes here in Ontario I know less of the language than some kids who'd been learning it for a few months).

Kessa Keita (I think)
From www.lacourdebabel.com
While I really enjoyed the film, one problem I ran into was keeping track of who was who. Of course, I'm notoriously bad at facial recognition, even with people I've known for a long time, so other viewers may have no problem keeping the students straight.

Also, viewers who are accustomed to the here's-my-controversial-thesis-let-me-explain-it-to-you expository kind of documentary might find their minds wandering. I suspect that's what happened to some members of the school group that was sitting behind me. Fidgeting started a little over halfway through the 90 minute runtime. That said, when I did hear snippets of talking from the group, it always seemed to be in response to the film, so maybe they were fully engaged but just unable to hold still.

Upcoming TIFF Kids Screenings of School of Babel:

I actually wasn't going to see School of Babel until later in the festival, but a last-minute cancellation of the film that was going to kick off my TIFF Kids experience for the year lead me to see it earlier than planned - which also means there are still screenings to come!

If you're interested in attending, note that TIFF recommends the film for youth in grades 6, 7, and 8. The film is in French (sometimes slightly butchered French, but French nonetheless) with English subtitles.
  • Thursday, April 10 - 9:45 a.m.
  • Tuesday, April 15 - 12:15 p.m.
Visit http://tiff.net/festivals/tiffkidsfestival/films/school-of-babel

Edited to Add a Note for Teachers

Right after I posted this I realized that teachers who take their students to see this film (or who would have liked to take their students but won't get the chance) may also be interested in looking at the Canadian play New Canadian Kid by Dennis Foon, which would tie in quiet nicely. 

Connect Online: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Wattpad | Goodreads | Google+

It's the TIFF Kids Time of Year

Monday April 07, 2014

Assuming I don't sleepily smash my alarm clock to little bits, I'll be out the door nice and early tomorrow to get to the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the first morning of the 2014 TIFF Kids International Film Festival. Formerly known as Sprockets, TIFF Kids offers screenings and events for children and young teens, plus industry events for the people who work, study, or are trying to break into the world of kids media.

I attended the festival for the first time last year and was blown away by both the films and the sessions I attended - unfortunately my decision to register came at the last minute, so I didn't set aside time to prepare beforehand or blog after the fact. But this year my notebook and I are ready*, so expect a lot of posts about kids movies from around the world over the next two weeks.

Got kids? Got a whole class of kids? Just like movies that are made for kids? Check out http://tiff.net/festivals/tiffkidsfestival for this year's full schedule.

*Okay, technically the notebook is still in a drawer right now, but I'll be packing tomorrow's bag as soon as I post this. So, my notebook will ready any minute now.

Connect Online: Facebook | Twitter | YouTube | Wattpad | Goodreads | Google+