When visiting zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, we don’t find it strange to come across animals far removed from their native lands: lemurs in the Bronx, penguins in Rome, bonobos in Berlin. In our increasingly globalized society, the same can be said for our fellow humans, who don’t necessarily seem out of place, no matter how diverse their backgrounds — even though moving to another part of one’s own country can still seem foreign.
Anna Sofie Hartmann’s ruminative film “Giraffe” poignantly explores that feeling of place and belonging, together with the evanescence of our impact on those who follow us. It’s a film of big themes on an intimate scale that lovingly acknowledges the unimaginable wealth of stories inside everyone we encounter, while also looking at how we negotiate the place of memory in our lives. Hartmann’s conduit is a young ethnologist cataloging a rural island community before a new tunnel changes the population and landscape. While the film has a welcome specificity, its themes are universally profound. “Giraffe” is more than festival fodder, and deserves arthouse attention.
There really are giraffes in the Knuthenborg Safaripark on the southern Danish island of Lolland, though it’s not clear whether the opening shot of the animals munching leaves against a bright blue sky was taken there or in the African savanna. The image that follows however, of a ferry coming into port, is very much Denmark, with typical steely Scandi tonalities. A tunnel, called the Fehmarn Belt Fixed Link, is about to be built linking Lolland with Germany, and Dara (Lisa Loven Kongsli, “Force Majeure”) is arriving back in her home country from Berlin to chronicle the way of life that’s about to change forever.
The tunnel is real, and so are a number of the people Dara speaks with who will shortly be displaced. Some live in homes built by their families generations earlier, like Birte and Leif, unable to imagine their farm covered in asphalt, whereas others are more recent arrivals with less of a connection to the land. While exploring the area, Dara comes upon an abandoned house in which she finds photo albums and the journal-like diary of a librarian named Agnes Sørenson. The entries draw Dara in, their sparsity adding a further level of fascination. Who was this woman who left such personal items just 15 years ago, only to disappear without explanation? What was this life like, and does something of it remain among Agnes’ possessions, or in the house?
During her explorations, Dara meets a young guy named Lucek (Jakub Gierszał, “Beyond Worlds”), part of a Polish crew laying fiber cable in the area. Like the people she’s been interviewing, most of the Poles are real laborers in Denmark who at one point talk about their hopes on first arriving in Scandinavia, the dreams they had of bringing their families there, and the disappointments and prejudice that followed. Against this doc-like backdrop, Dara and Lucek start a relationship whose chemistry and directness is a delight to watch. There’s the usual hesitant physical awkwardness on first meeting but then Dara, 14 years older, can’t stop staring at the handsome man (several times he asks her to stop staring), as if she can’t quite believe in his beauty and wants to record it all in her head. She has a boyfriend in Berlin but for now she’s so pleased with herself, not egotistically or in a way that negates his feelings, but with a simple, genuine thrill in the brief romance.
There’s one other fictional role, Käthe (Maren Eggert), a woman who works on the ferry and watches the passengers while imagining the hopes and dreams of those who pass briefly before her during the short sea journey during which time seems to stand still. Though Käthe is a minor figure, Hartmann’s superb script, intellectual but not overly so, doesn’t short-change the character, who acts as a kind of humane Charon ferrying people not into an eternal afterlife, but towards vast, fading corridors of memory with no known terminus. Both Dara and Käthe use their imaginations to project entire lives onto strangers, as acts of generosity: “Giraffe” refuses to reduce people to packaged screen stories, insisting that everyone is a complex person with insoluble bonds to locations that aren’t severed when they’re uprooted and displaced.
The steady, unforced electricity between Loven Kongsli and Gierszał proves incredibly compelling, her simple radiance matched by his understated charisma; they’re also terrific with the non-professionals. Visuals have an admirable formal rigor that insists on the centrality of people rather than cold compositions, which is very much in keeping with the film’s generous exploration of humanity. Mirrors appear in several scenes, their reflections further underlining the three-dimensionality of people treated both by the camera and the script as multi-faceted.