Ask anyone to name a female pioneer who studied wild species in their natural habitat in Africa and you’ll get Jane Goodall. But in 1956, four years before primatologist Goodall’s rightfully celebrated work with the chimpanzees started, there was the 23-year-old Canadian Dr. Anne Innis Dagg and her research of giraffes. Despite being the first woman to set off on a solitary expedition to observe animal behavior, the zoologist never received proper popular praise for her efforts. With her bighearted documentary “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes,” director Alison Reid aims to correct this error, honoring an ahead-of-her-time scientist who defied the patriarchal conventions of the 1950s and stood up to various forms of sexism since then.
Blending stunning original 16mm footage captured during the researcher’s year in South Africa; lively talking heads interviews with various familial, academic, and conservationist figures; and loving letters exchanged between young Innis (read by Tatiana Maslany), her future husband, and free-spirited mother, Reid meticulously investigates why Dr. Dagg’s groundbreaking work didn’t quite collect the widespread acclaim that it deserved. Underneath it all lies a heartbreaking tale of a driven woman stifled by institutional misogyny — a fascinating story stunt coordinator-turned-filmmaker Reid patiently approaches from various captivating angles.
Leading the way in her giraffe-printed garments is the present-day Dr. Dagg — joyous, unassuming and still in love with the tall, elegant creatures. She traces her steps back to where her work started and returns to Africa after being away for decades, giving us a window into both historical injustices she weathered and contemporary ecological dangers giraffes face in the hands of human cruelty.
Organizing Dr. Dagg’s story in seamless, engaging chapters (with noteworthy editing by Caroline Christie and Mike Munn), the filmmaker makes a lighthearted start with the footage of the retro game show “To Tell the Truth,” in which giraffologist Innis Dagg had appeared back in the day. (Not one of the judges correctly guessed which of the contestants was the real Innis Dagg.)
Flashing back before these late-life battles with obscurity, the film follows her to South Africa for an adventure encouraged by her mother, who wisely advises Innis to prioritize her passion over marriage, as well as her then-fiancé Ian Dagg, who agrees to postpone marital wows. Writing cold letters to every wildlife preserve with giraffes for a post, the young researcher quickly discovers her gender would just lead to routine rejections. So she continues her inquiries using just her initials and only then lands a placement.
And yet, this institutional bias proves mild compared to what she would experience upon her return home in a year’s time. Despite having months of invaluable research and nearly two dozen published papers under her belt, she gets denied tenure at the University of Guelph in 1972, where she works as an assistant professor of zoology. She faces a similar uphill battle with the University of Waterloo, which wouldn’t hire a married woman who already had a husband to financially support her. Telling the story on camera, the old Innis — now in her 80s — can’t hold back her tears. (We can’t, either.)
Turning into a vocal feminist activist from this point on, Dr. Dagg embarks on a passionate journey to advocate for women’s rights, publishing related books and articles in various papers and magazines. “It felt good to complain,” the older and wiser Innis energetically reflects, still unsure whether she was really able to change anything. Balancing this heartrending shade with notes of romance Innis shared with her late husband (in the similar spirit of Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s “RBG”), Reid paints a complete portrait of a woman who dedicated herself to life unwaveringly despite all the aforementioned setbacks.
Assuming a gentle, “Searching for Sugarman”-esque character in its sweetest narrative thread, Reid’s film veers into the world of giraffologists who have long treated Dr. Dagg’s work and books as the bible of the field. It’s simply a thrill to witness the until-then unaware Dr. Dagg discover her longstanding impact within a tight community of similarly-minded scientists and specialists. Almost miraculously, Reid manages to bottle that exuberance amid all the professional and ecological heartbreak and gifts it back to Dr. Dagg.