A bright spot in the middle of this dark month, Alison Reid’s unabashedly sincere documentary offers gentle comfort even when it brushes up against tough subjects. “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes” is Dr. Anne Innis Dagg, though a more accurate — if admittedly impractical — title might be “The Woman Who Once Loved Giraffes, Then Lost Them, and Finally Found Them Again.”
The movie traces the length of her remarkable journey beginning in 1936, when her mother took her to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Just three years old, she gazed at a group of giraffes — what she now calls “a symphony of perfection” — and knew that she wanted to dedicate her life to them.
And so she did, at least at first. Dagg made her way to Africa for the rigorous study of wild animals in their native habitat years before Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey or many other peers who earned greater renown. It wasn’t easy to be the groundbreaker, of course: she was so consistently rejected as a young, single woman that she began applying for positions by using her initials.
The one offer she received was rescinded when the South African park manager discovered she was not, as he had automatically assumed, a man. But she persisted, and after becoming the first person to study giraffes in the wild, she moved back to her native Canada and wrote the seminal book on her subject.
She didn’t find much civility back in civilization, however. She secured a teaching spot at the University of Guelph, a job she loved until the male administration blocked her path forward. Despite her essential work, she found herself with no position, no funding, and no official support. Just like that, her career was over.
But pioneers will always find new trails to blaze, and soon she discovered another calling: feminist activism. She brought her rejection of tenure to the Supreme Court of Ontario and spent years fighting for justice. Though she eventually lost, she also used that time to write independent books like “The Fifty Percent Solution: Why Should Women Pay for Men’s Culture?”
This alone would make her a compelling documentary subject. But unbeknownst to her, generations of zoology students, including increasing numbers of young women who followed in her lonely footsteps. had become reliant on her classic study, “The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior, and Ecology.” Given that Reid gives the charismatic Dagg copious screen time from the start, and also that she favors a steadily positive tone throughout, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that both Dagg and the movie are blessed with a thrilling third act.
Indeed, despite some grim ecological statistics and a conservationist message, the movie is so inspirational it feels like the sort of old-fashioned family film that can now be excavated on Disney+. It’s interesting that Reid was originally planning to make a fictional biopic about Dagg, because she does an excellent job braiding the documentary materials. Her contemporary interviews are concise and insightful, and she’s lucky to have the original 16mm footage Dagg shot on her 1956 trip.
Reid also uses actors to narrate old letters between Dagg, her supportive fiancé Ian, and her unusually liberal mother Mary, who pushed her daughter away from the safety of early marriage and into a high-risk career at a time when few parents would do the same. The voiceovers themselves are a bit uneven: Victor Garber represents Anne’s original boss, Alexander Matthew, with a warm mix of practicality and affection. As young Anne, Tatiana Maslany brings a naiveté and overeagerness that doesn’t seem to suit the straightforward scientist we get to know.
But the South African footage, from both the past and present, is transportive, as is Dagg’s uncontainable delight when she finds herself back where she’s always belonged.