Several years before Jane Goodall went into the jungle to study primates, a 23-year-old Canadian woman named Anne Innis Dagg traveled alone to South Africa to begin what would become her lifelong study of giraffes in their natural environment—a passion that began in childhood and led her down a path that included many roadblocks (most of them put up by men) but ultimately made her the world’s foremost authority on giraffe. Director Alison Reid’s compelling and uplifting documentary The Woman Who Loves Giraffes takes us through the life, struggles and triumphs Dagg faced on her road to becoming a successful researcher, author (she penned a book that is still considered the bible to all giraffe scientists), teacher, wife, mother, and ultimately feminist icon.
The number of basic things that were denied Dagg in her efforts to return to Africa in the decades since her initial visit simply because of her gender is an embarrassment to higher education and scientific study. She was repeatedly denied tenure despite having published dozens of papers and earning a doctorate. It wasn’t until more recent years, as interest in giraffes has expanded because their numbers are dwindling, that Dagg was pulled back into the field by younger researchers who worship her writings and invited her to be a speaker at conferences and eventually return to South Africa, where she discovered that some of her earliest findings about giraffes were actually incorrect.
Director Reid uses a tremendous amount of archival film, much of which Dagg shot herself in 1956, but more revealing are photographs and letters from that first visit (the letters are voiced by actress and fellow Canadian Tatiana Maslany) to various people, but primarily her soon-to-be-husband. Still, to see her more recently back with the giraffes is genuinely moving and long overdue. She revisits locations where she worked 60 years earlier, and her enthusiasm hasn’t waned a bit. The film is a triumph and inspiration, but it doesn’t spare those who deserve criticism for their limited ideas about women in the field or in the classroom. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes also has a strong message about conservation and more footage of these strange and majestic creatures than you’ve ever seen in one place.
The film opens for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Director Alison Reid and subject Anne Innis Dagg are scheduled to appear for audience discussion on Saturday, October 12 at 5pm, and Sunday, October 13 at 2:30pm.
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