Anne Innis Dagg saw her first giraffe when she was 3. This was at a Chicago zoo during a family visit from her native Canada. Her fate was sealed. The first person to study giraffes in the wild, Dagg would make them her life’s work. “She founded giraffe biology,” says one of the talking heads in Alison Reid’s charming and clear-eyed documentary about Dagg, “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes.”
Not surprisingly for a woman who started out in the ’50s, Dagg had to endure a now-shocking degree of sexism in academe and general societal pressures to conform. “I thought of myself as a person, not a woman,” she says quite matter of factly. “I always did my own thing.” So “The Woman Who Loves Giraffes” is almost as much about the prejudice Dagg had to deal with as a female scientist as it is about the wondrous title creatures.
How wondrous? “Giraffes are about as likely as unicorns,” says one of the film’s talking heads, John Doherty, of Queen’s University, Belfast. Insofar as unicorns aren’t real, giraffes are better. Their necks you know about. “You forget how tall they are,” Dagg says with nice understatement. But consider also the doe-like beauty of their eyes, the wondrousness of their spoon-shaped snouts, the glory that is the sight of them running. They’re so delicate and graceful in their motions generally. It’s easy to see why Dagg, now 87, lights up at the sight of one.
Dagg studying giraffes recalls the more famous examples of Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees and Dian Fossey studying gorillas. That Dagg went to Africa in 1956, before either Goodall or Fossey, indicates what a trailblazer she was. Viewers who enjoyed Brett Morgen’s 2017 Goodall documentary, “Jane,” will find much to like here.
Dagg was 23 when she arrived in South Africa. She’d spend 8-10 hours a day doing fieldwork. “It was exhausting but super,” she says. When not gaining the trust of the giraffes and recording her observations about them, she was writing home. A faithful correspondent, she kept in regular touch with both her mother and future husband. Tatiana Maslany (“Orphan Black”) reads from Dagg’s letters.
Dagg stayed with a rancher, Alex Matthew, whose property was near Kruger National Park. There were 200 giraffes on his land. Matthew became like an uncle to her. He and Dagg corresponded after she returned to Canada. Victor Garber (“Dark Waters,” “Alias”) reads from his letters.
All that correspondence, both from Dagg and to her, is a godsend for Reid. Even better, Matthew had a 16mm camera. He urged Dagg to use it. The film draws heavily on the footage she shot of the giraffes — and that he shot of her. Dagg looks so proud behind the wheel of her right-hand-drive Ford Prefect. Best of all, Reid has Dagg. An open-hearted, strong-souled woman, she’s a radiant presence.
The documentary loses a bit when Dagg returns home, and an alarmingly perky score doesn’t help. Late in life, after her tenure struggles, she published a new edition of her dissertation and found herself rediscovered. The documentary regains steam, as Dagg is feted at a conference and revisits Africa. It doesn’t feel at all like a tacked-on happy ending. Instead, it’s a coming-full-circle. “Everyone’s worried about the elephants,” Dagg says, “but no one’s worried about the giraffes.” That’s not quite true. She was then, she still is now.
THE WOMAN WHO LOVES GIRAFFES
Written and directed by Alison Reid. At Kendall Square. 83 minutes. Unrated
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.