In these times when a famous-person documentary seems to open nearly every week, “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes” instead profiles Anne Innis Dagg, a Canadian zoologist who conducted groundbreaking studies of giraffes in Africa in the 1950s. She deserves to be better known, as this enlightening, enjoyable doc (opening Friday at the Roxie in The City) makes clear.
Directed by Alison Reid, the film contains recent interviews and archival materials, including footage of African wildlife. Reid also addresses sexism in Canada’s academic system and the plight of vulnerable species.
The Toronto-born Dagg fell in love with giraffes at age 3, when visiting an Illinois zoo. In 1956, at 23, she traveled to apartheid-era South Africa and became the first person credited with studying animals in the wild on the continent. (Her arrival in Africa predated that of primatologist Jane Goodall by four years.)
Near the ranch where Dagg was staying, giraffes roamed, and Dagg filmed, sketched and took extensive notes, observing everything from their diet to mating behavior.
After returning to Canada, however, where she worked and lived with her physics-professor husband, Ian, and their three children, Dagg was largely forgotten by the world. Reid examines why.
Institutional sexism seems largely to blame. The rejection of Dagg’s application for a tenured professorship, when one considers Dagg’s remarkable qualifications — she had published articles in major science periodicals and authored half a dozen books, one of which giraffe scientists still call their “bible’ — clearly resulted from gender bias in 1960s and 1970s Canadian academia. Without tenure, Dagg couldn’t pursue the career she desired. She shifted her focus to feminist projects.
Dagg joyfully reconnected with the “giraffing” world in the 2010s, after members of the community tracked her down. In the film’s final chapters, Dagg visits Africa, meets young scientists and observes giraffes that likely descended from those she studied 60 years prior.
At the same time, somber realities exist: Giraffes have experienced a drastic population decline. Humans have surpassed lions as giraffes’ No. 1 enemy.
Reid’s film lacks some of the personality of Brett Morgen’s “Jane.” More information about Dagg’s early years and general temperament would have resulted in a richer character portrait. The giraffes, too, could be more captivating. What are their parenting methods? How intelligent are they?
But the film overall impresses as an introduction to a scientist worth knowing. It additionally acknowledges the struggles female scientists have had to wage to be regarded as equal to male counterparts.
The battle isn’t over. A Dagg detractor, whose nay vote helped derail Dagg’s career decades ago, won’t apologize when interviewed today. Fortunately, the man is outnumbered, One of the joys of watching this film is to see Dagg, now 86, receiving due applause.
The African footage, some of it shot by Dagg, contains extraordinary scenes of giraffes eating, running and fighting with their necks.
The sight of giraffes in motion, is, in Dagg’s words, a “symphony of movement.”
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes
Starring: Anne Innis Dagg
Written and directed by: Alison Reid
Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes