Zarafa: Big Neck, Melting Eyes


One doesn’t have to go to a Sunday morning world premiere screening at the Berlin Film Festival, now in the last few days of its 62nd incarnation, to come to the obvious conclusion that  movies have become the world’s religion. Ten o’clock on Sunday morning and the festival venues around the city are packed to overflowing. The churches are largely empty, regardless of whether a film festival is on or not.

The cinema’s priests and priestesses arrive at the Marlene Dietrich Theatre in the glitzy Potsdamer Platz, where twenty years ago there was nothing but No Man’s Land between East and West Berlin, and step out of black BMWs (an official sponsor of the festival) onto the red carpet to the jubilation of the throngs of worshippers.

The Berlinale has long staked out February as its moment to claim the international movie spotlight, but the Oscars marched into the end of the month nearly ten years ago, an invasion that has made it more difficult for this festival to lure Hollywood’s blockbusters.

At least Brangelina was here this time around. The pair came for Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Land of Milk and Honey, a movie concerned with Bosnian war atrocities. Film pilgrims followed them everywhere, from their dinner in a trendy Italian restaurant to the Gendarmemarkt for the conferral of Angelina’s Cinema for Peace award, handed to her by Nobel Peace Prize winner, Mohammed El-Baradei. Even though many of the devout couldn’t get a ticket to enter the cavernous cathedral of St. Marlene for the holy rites of the premiere itself, the faithful could content themselves with a glimpse of a bare Jolie neck and shoulder, or of Pitt’s mustache.

In the Christian epoch music was fostered on a massive, if often uneven, scale. From St. Peter’s to the most distant country church there had to be song—from elaborate masses with choir and orchestra, to the simplest of hymns accompanied on a small, ill-repaired organ. Religion was the driving force of the musical economy—from schoolteachers to international star composers.  While European opera was the Hollywood of pre-industrial Europe, the church provided far more jobs than did the theatre.

The promise of celebrity and wealth drove opera culture, just as it drives that of the movies. But few ascend to the heights occupied by John Williams or A. R. Rahman, both of whom have amassed large fortunes from their movie scores. The musical elite, like Josquin Desprez in the Vatican’s musical Golden Age, is richly rewarded, while thousands below seek to get a hand up to the next run of the hierarchy: from writing music for a student video project; to a short film (if lucky, one admitted to a festival); then an independent movie; perhaps one day a feature; and then, just maybe that call from Hollywood.

At Monday’s Berlinale screening of short films for children twelve years and older, a kid of about eight asked the half-dozen filmmakers arrayed on stage if any of them were rich. It is a safe bet that all had poured years of work and probably all their savings into their respective projects. The questioner eagerly awaited an answer in the affirmative, but the directors on stage remained bemusedly silent.

In times past, the church formed the basis for musical education by funding schools and orphanages (the first musical conservatories). While there are an increasing number of college programs devoted to the study and composition of film music, the real teacher is the medium itself. Children are immersed in the musical accompaniment to moving images from the womb: t.v. advertisments, cartoons, Disney films. The human musical hard-drive is formed most decisively by Hollywood’s repertoire. The sound of cinema, seen and heard first at home, is mother’s milk to millions.

This perhaps partly explains the robust state of proficiency among the ranks of film composers, from the top of the hierarchy to the bottom.  That is not to say that all are equally gifted simply as a result all the watching and listening they’ve done, and that no work is required to hone native talent in the development of the skills required for composing film scores, but rather that the ambient world of cinematic sound teaches us a common language, whose vocabulary and inflections are globally understood.

Last Sunday morning the House of the Cultures of the World—just one of many venues filled with the fascinated and devout—was packed to see the world premier of the much-hyped animated film, Zarafa directed by Rémi Bezançon and Jean-Christoph Lie. In rather predictable, and often charming, fashion the movie tells the story of the first giraffe taken to France in 1827. As in Babar and Bambi, the young animal’s mother is slaughtered at the start of the movie, in Zarafa by a nefarious slave trader who is tracking a runaway slave boy. This boy promises the dying giraffe mother that he will look after her child, the eponymous  Zarafa. The young giraffe is in turn captured not by a trader in humans, but in animals, and the adventure is launched.

The film indulges in pre-packaged feasts of exoticism from around the Mediterranean: a seductive (female) Greek pirate who wields her cutlass and fulsome lips with equal aplomb; a big-nosed, big-toothed Arab camel trader; a tall, dark and handsome Bedouin (spoiler alert: he miraculously recovers from a late-in-the game shot in the back to end his days on a Greek island cavorting with that sexy Greek pirate); twin sacred Indian cows; menacing Turkish galleons; a benevolent pasha; a loin-clothed African with big eyes, which grow to extraordinarily disbelieving dimensions when they confront the corruptions of Europe. This francophone multicultural squad could even teach Disney a thing or two about over-the-top ethnic profiling: from the Arab merchant’s incessant haggling to the man-eating antics of the saucy maritime wench—the biggest, if still minimal, feminine presence in the movie aside from the Buddhist cows. If one hadn’t been long ago inoculated to such nonsense by the vaccinators at Disney, one might get offended by the seemingly harmless tale that is Zarafa.

In contrast to Babar, the Europeans in Zarafa are painted as the bad guys they undoubtedly are; the best Africa can do, however, is to blast the French king Charles X (the monarch who presided over the invasion of Algeria a few years after the giraffe’s arrival) and his dandified court with hippopotamus dung at the unveiling of this latest animal acquisition at his zoo—a scene that delighted the littler kids in the Berlinale audience. The artistic renderings of 19th-century Alexandria and Paris are particularly striking; those of the African savannah and desert rather flat by comparison, as if broad vistas do not whet the draftsmen’s appetite for precision and hectic composition, from the minarets and battlements at the mouth of the Nile to the beaux arts botanical gardens on the outskirts of Paris.

Zarafa is a French production with the backing of a host of European film funders. Needless to say, all the characters speak French, and will continue to do so unless the film gets distribution internationally and is redubbed into other languages. One is so accustomed to hearing Africans speak English in Disney films that it hardly seems remarkable that they should speak French in a French film. But somehow hearing the language of north and central African colonialism deliver the same old formulae of adventure on the Dark Continent proves quite unsettling, even when these clichés are served with large helpings of African kindness and culture as well as with side-dishes of European depravity. The younger kids were oblivious to such nuances in the welter of European languages that came at them during the premiere: French-speaking characters; English subtitles; and simultaneous German translation over the loudspeakers. In the end though, Zarafa is an almost benign epilogue to the same colonialism at which it occasionally slings animated excrement.

The composer Laurent Perez Del Mar, whose credits include a handful of French features, knows his way around the phrasebook of cinematic Esperanto. For the grand tableaux he favors parallel chords and serpentine melodies through which the Europeans have long portrayed exotics both from the Middle East and Africa.  Sweeping symphonic updrafts and euphoric choral voices lift the balloon over Mediterranean, and almost over the Alps. Blaring horns pile up dissonantly when amok is to be run by beast and bad guy. These symphonic sounds come courtesy of the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra; the church of cinema spreading the wealth, even if away from the more expensive ensembles of Western Europe.

Zarafa is competent enough, and never cloying for too long, though almost never unexpected. The story, along with its visual and sonic presentation, tries to beat Hollywood at its own game, with as much talent and a fraction of the budget. A French fairytale touching tentatively on its colonial past, this giraffe, welcomed by the Berlin bear, might just be gobbled up by the Hollywood lion—or picked apart by the vultures. Either way, after spending a morning in cinema’s Sunday school, it feels good to leave the church and get out into the fresh winter air.

Next Week:  Babelsberg’s 100th Anniversary and the Berlinale: Music for Emil Jannings.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Bach’s Feet. He can be reached at



DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at