Dr. Anne Innis Dagg fell in love with giraffes at the age of three, when her mother took her to the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago. Now 87, Dagg’s love for the giraffe has lasted the better part of a century, which has included her becoming the first person to go to Africa to study the behavior of a wild animal – even before Jane Goodall – and writing the preeminent book on giraffes. Directed by Alison Reid, The Woman Who loves Giraffes follows Dagg’s dedication to the wonderful animal that she compares to a real-life unicorn, and her struggles over the decades to follow her dreams of studying and working with giraffes.
As the interviewees who were inspired by Dagg state early on in the film, Dagg never received the attention she deserved for her contributions to science, and her insights into giraffes that become integral in future studies. Reid puts the focus back on Dagg, and what starts as a story about an adventurous woman going to Africa by herself in the 1950s to study giraffes, becomes about Dagg fighting to be taken seriously in higher learning establishments and later, centers around her fight around conservation to save the giraffe.
Dagg’s early story, as she heads to Africa on her own fresh out of college, is told through old video footage taken in the ‘50s, letters Dagg sent to her fiancé (read by Tatiana Maslany). There’s also Dagg’s journals, which include some of the earliest studies done on the research of giraffes. This first segment of the film is a wonderful look at a young person desperately engaging her passions, while also breaking ground in scientific discoveries and ignoring the racist segregation that was occurring in Africa.
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes feels the most cluttered in these early segments, primarily because there’s so much to cover and so many ways to present all the material from this time period. Maslany’s presentation of Dagg’s journals at times doesn’t match the person who Dagg seemed to be at that period in her life, and this look back at the past could’ve been even more impactful had these segments been read by Dagg, looking back at her younger self.
When Reid jumps to Dagg in the present, there’s still that love for the giraffe and her research that went long dormant after Dagg was turned down for tenure, despite incredible amounts of work to her name. Dagg’s fight for equality through sexist practices would supplant her giraffe research, and continues to this day.
But the biggest charms in The Women Who Loves Giraffes comes when those who adored Dagg’s work find her and bring her back into her research once more, sending her back to Africa and deep into research as if no time has passed. Even after a decades-long lull in work, Dagg is still just as determined and passionate about this subject as she ever was.
Reid wisely gives equal focus to these three different phases of Dagg’s life, as it’s easy to see how focusing too much on any one segment of her life could become repetitive and not sustain a feature-length film. Thankfully, each phrase of Dagg’s life is just as fascinating to learn about as the last.
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is part Jane, part Searching for Sugar Man, a captivating story of an important scientific figure who has too long been ignored. Reid shows Dagg as the forward-thinking, brilliantly ambitious woman who still fights for what’s right and what needs to be done.