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Woman Who Loves Giraffes, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Try and be as cool as this lady, humanity."
4 stars

"The Woman Who Loves Giraffes" is the sort of movie that would have me smiling hugely from end to end if it weren't for friggin' people, denying Anne Innis Dagg tenure because she's a woman, curtailing her field studies, and driving the reticulated giraffe toward extinction. It's still a genuine delight for much of its time on screen, one that happily translates fondness for its subjects into something the audience will share, but it's still got plentiful moments when one wants humanity to do better.

The woman of the title is Anne Innis Dagg, who was amazed by her first sight of a giraffe when taken to Chicago's Broadfield Zoo at the age of three and never lost that interest through school, eventually going to South Africa to study the animals in the wild in 1956. This was a bigger deal than it may sound; not only was scientific study of wild animals <I>in situ</I> a new field (she actually arrived in Africa years before Goodall and Fossey), but most of the places where she set up shop would dismiss her out of hand upon hearing she was a woman - rancher Alexander Matthew initially assumed "A. Innis" was a man before allowing her to use his Fleur-de-Lys plantation as her base of operations. He would eventually grow to respect her dedication, and the observations she made over those months would form the basis of a book that, decades later, was still the pre-eminent reference in the field.

And yet, this groundbreaking work would not get her tenure at the universities where she taught in the 1960s, and she would spend much of the 1970s fighting to have this sexism recognized as discrimination in front of various Canadian courts and academic organizations. Reid dedicates a significant amount of time in the film's second half to this, and handles it in conscientious fashion: This is a major part of Dagg's story, and it would be easy to spend more time on it, since it involves human conflict and things the audience can directly relate to, but Reid is careful not to let it overwhelm the more upbeat facets of the film. There's vindication as she is rediscovered and honored by those she has inspired, and pangs as one wonders just what she could have done had her career not been sidelined, but Reid opts to make what Dagg achieved the focus of her film, rather than how men stymied her.

As a result, the film is rather a delight. Dagg's infectious enthusiasm for this animal seems to have never flagged over eighty years, and the filmmakers always center that even as her story has detours. Reid and her cinematographers observe giraffes scientifically but never with detachment, taking delight in how birds perch on these large mammals like they are trees or inviting viewers to examine their odd gait. Reid is tremendously fortunate with what is available for footage at both ends of Dagg's life: Matthews just happened to have a high-quality movie camera back in 1956 on the one hand, and Dagg is still spry enough in her eighties to make a return visit to Africa and what's left of Fleur-de-Lys, and the other giraffologists interacting with her shows what an influential and beloved figure she is in her field far better than having people say as much. The filmmakers seem to take joy from the occasional oddity of science in ways that documentaries dont always manage - there is, for instance, a conversation that takes place while one participant has his arm all the way up a giraffe's birth canal, and, yeah, it's like that sometimes, as passion and enthusiasm commingle with clinical perspective.

Reid also has access to letters Anne wrote and received over the years, and there's a sort of self-aware impishness to how she uses them, with Dagg laughing as she reads them for the first time in decades or comments on how she was frustrated only receiving letters from finacé Ian Dagg every couple weeks or so because in books, a lover would write four times a day! There's an incredible sweetness to the portions taken from Anne's letters that I'm kind of amazed they pulled off; The upbeat attitude matches the woman in the present, sure, but all those letters written to "mommy" or asking Ian if he really loves her could blow pass youthful to immature but never do, in large part because Tatiana Maslany turns out to be a great choice as the voice of young Anne. There's just a hint that she knew these letters made her sound like a character in a novel and she leans into it just a little.

There's something purely good and aspirational here that these biographies often fumble - filmmakers either get upset about how the subject was overlooked that the erasure becomes the story rather than the achievements, or they miss the balance between accomplishment and personality. Reid gets it right more often than not, and has certainly made a picture that might inspire other kids to dive right into the thing they love.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=33498&reviewer=371
originally posted: 02/28/20 10:02:08
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USA
  04-Oct-2019
  DVD: 07-Apr-2020

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A


Directed by
  Alison Reid

Written by
  Alison Reid

Cast
  (documentary)



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