In The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, director Alison Reid takes a comprehensive look at Anne Innis Dagg’s life. Dagg has many roles. But Reid carefully shows us that Dagg, in her 90s, is still studying the animals that she loved.
The film uses some reenactments and archive footage that Dagg took herself. Both take us back to the 1950s in Transvaal, South Africa. The only place to take her in, a place that allowed a brave woman like her to study giraffes.
It also combines Dagg’s archive footage with that of giraffes living today, reinforcing the behavioral patterns that Dagg was interpreting. Mixing that with Dagg’s own commentary, it’s one of the few films that are logically steps ahead from its audience.
There’s another slightly distracting element that transports us to that time. It uses Tatiana Maslany’s voice as Young Anne and Victor Garber as the voice of Alex Matthew. Matthew is the white South African farmer who took Anne in.
Dagg studied giraffes before Jane Goodall studied chimpanzees but the comparisons between the two female scientists are inescapable. Unlike Goodall, Dagg sample size lived in a farm. There, the neighboring farmers judged a man for taking a woman in.
This was also during the Apartheid, a system that Dagg had to subvert to do anything. And she did, writing papers and books about giraffes. She eventually has to go home, which will present challenges as big and oppressive.
Returning to Canada, Dagg takes a professor job with her husband Ian. There, she realizes that she only had one ally in her university’s chauvinistic zoology department. She needed tenure to return to Africa, which she was never going to get.
Dagg then focused on writing pieces about the sexism in university campuses which still exist today. She also tried to forget about giraffes. That’s until conservation societies contacted her and gave her as many resources to start studying them again.
There is a great story here which it mostly competently tells. But there are perfunctory moments where Reid shows South African tribal rituals. That still comes across as old school National Geographic. Some of the music also feels too obvious.
Nonetheless, Reid importantly shows us that Dagg’s life and studied aren’t a closed book, the latter continually revising her work. Reid also doesn’t shy away from the difficulties giraffes face. They just show us that they need our help to survive.