Smitten by Giraffes

Alison Reid gives pioneering zoologist Anne Innis Dagg her due in The Woman Who Loves Giraffes

15 mins read

Anne Innis Dagg’s story is one of being smitten by giraffes. It’s also one of setbacks and comebacks. The Canadian zoologist has had a career as long and extraordinary as a giraffe’s neck, but she’s an unsung hero, often referred to as “Canada’s Jane Goodall” when, in fact, her ground-breaking research on giraffes predated Goodall’s studies of chimps by a few years. It’s time to start calling Jane Goodall “England’s Anne Innis Dagg.”

Dagg finally gets her due in the new documentary The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, directed by Alison Reid (The Baby Formula). The film chronicles Dagg’s bold leap at the age of 23 when she became an unlikely researcher of giraffes in South Africa. Reid’s doc energetically revisits Anne’s arrival in apartheid-era Africa to go where no scientist had gone before and study animals in the wild—and at first accepted only because Mr. Matthew, the proprietor of Fleur-de-Lys ranch, thought the letter signed “A. Dagg” was from an Alexander or Andrew. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes is an empowering portrait of Dagg and the generations of zoologists she inspired.

Inequity and Irony

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes shows Dagg encountering cruel inequity that stalled her research in its tracks. Despite earning a PhD upon returning home from Africa and publishing significant research in credible periodicals, the higher-ups at the University of Guelph denied her tenure. The film is rife with all-too relevant scholarly tragedy as Reid chronicles Dagg’s unsuccessful fight against systemic gender inequality in 1970s academia. The fruition of her research was the now-canonical book The Giraffe: its biology, behavior, and ecology, co-authored with J. Bristol Foster and first published in 1976, but as the film chronicles in a mixture of fury and irony, Dagg left her mark on the field just when it turned its back on her.

Dagg, speaking in conversation with Reid and POV in Toronto, admits that this chapter of her life was the hardest to revisit. “Even if I had more books and more papers than any other person, I wasn’t worthy,” she recalls. “That was too much.”

For the film, Reid lands an eye-opening interview with the one of the professors at Guelph who denied Dagg tenure. His response is one of tone deaf ignorance—particularly for a contemporary audience—and reveals so much about the systemic inequity Dagg faced. Dagg doesn’t hold back when asked about that scene. “I liked it because it brought him down,” she admits. “I’ve hated him ever since [she was denied tenure]. I mean he was just a vicious, awful person.”

The story resonates with the current conversation in the film industry, and culture more broadly, for stronger representation for women. When asked how her own career reflects Dagg’s story, Reid says she hasn’t experienced anything quite on the level that her subject has. “Before I was a director, I was a stunt performer and stunt coordinator,” says Reid, whose prolific resume of stunt work includes television programs like Murdoch Mysteries, Rookie Blue, and various generations of Degrassi and films like Atom Egoyan’s Chloe, David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, and Ruba Nadda’s October Gale. “I encountered bits and pieces, but thankfully nothing to the extent that Anne experienced,” says Reid.

From Drama to Documentary

The sad reality is that while such obstacles are awful for subjects, they can provide great material for filmmakers. “When I found out about Anne’s story, I saw that she was a pioneering woman with a real passion, for giraffes and would stop at nothing to be able to pursue her dream and study them,” says Reid. “She overcame all sorts of obstacles.”

Reid says the road to Giraffes didn’t begin with a documentary, but with a drama. “I thought it would make a great scripted film or miniseries,” notes Reid. “I went to Anne and she was kind enough to give me the rights to her book Pursuing Giraffe [published in 2006]. When I found out she was going back to Africa for the first time in over half a century, I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.”

The fateful trip to Africa offers the third act of the film in which Dagg makes a triumphant comeback. Reid records the historic opportunity as Dagg attends a conference of giraffe lovers in Nairobi and retraces her journey. She discovers that even though she hasn’t been teaching zoology at the university level, she’s inspired a generation of students who revere The Giraffe as “the Bible” of their field. After being an outsider for years, Dagg finds herself with a community of giraffe lovers she didn’t know existed.

The Comeback Tour

The film reveals Dagg’s genuine surprise as she is touched to learn of her work’s impact. “I didn’t know anyone who knew anything about what I had done,” admits Dagg. “At the time the book came out, I guess a few people picked it up, but then they didn’t know how to get in touch with me because the press actually went belly up.” Despite the years of obscurity and lost work, the film sees Dagg approach her research without losing a beat of energy or passion through the use of present-day footage combined with archival images.

Thanks to Anne’s groundbreaking research, Reid’s film draws upon a wealth of 16mm archival footage that shows the young Dagg in her element. Reid says that no restoration was needed for the reels shot in 1956-1957 since Dagg had successfully preserved the footage over the past few decades. “It was in fine shape after all those years,” she explains, adding that Dagg’s reels of 16mm were digitized right away when production began.

While Dagg’s journey back to Africa was the starting point for Reid, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes deftly weaves past with present as new images of Anne in Africa mirror the memories of her younger self. “We had an incredible opportunity here to blend the story of Anne’s past with the present ” Reid observes, whose film bears witness to her success in that endeavour.

Walking in her own footsteps

In addition to the archival images, The Woman Who Loves Giraffes draws upon Anne’s extensive writing, both academic and personal, to inject her voice into the mix. Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black) provides the voice of the young Anne Innis Dagg, while Victor Garber (Argo) brings to life the words of Mr. Matthew. The mix of new footage and archival images provides a sense of Anne’s journey and growth across the years. “Weaving back and forth between past and present,” says Reid, “we had all these letters and this wonderful footage serving as devices between the past and present stories. To be back with Anne in the same place where she took the footage from 1956 was pretty incredible.”

Reid observes that Anne’s story revealed itself layer by layer as the documentary retraced her past. “There were some amazing coincidences, like the fact that she was invited to a conference at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago where she fell in love with giraffes at age three,” says Reid. The coincidences provide effective visual parallels as the contemporary scenes, shot by Reid and cinematographer Dale Hildebrand with Iris Ng lensing seamless recreations. These images put Anne back in the path from which she was cruelly pulled. “Another coincidence was the conference at Kruger [National Park] in South Africa, a stone’s throw from Fleur-de-Lys, the ranch where [Anne] did her pioneering research,” says Reid. “I had no idea these things were going to happen—and they afforded us an incredible opportunity to re-trace Anne’s pioneering journey.” As the past mixes with the present, Reid portrays Dagg’s trip to Africa as a continuous journey, emphasizing her legacy and longevity while assert her rightful space within history.

Flying Under the Radar

As audiences watch Dagg thrive in the wild, both as a 23-year-old and as an octogenarian, they might see further parallels between Dagg and Jane Goodall given last year’s release of Brett Morgen’s documentary Jane. Reid and Dagg find that their film—a five year-production that was well under way when Jane debuted—is in good company. “It was very interesting to see the congruencies, like how they were both young women following their dreams,” says Reid.

The director also highlights the roles of women in both films that reveal generations of unsung heroes and influences. “When you see the Jane documentary, you realize that her mother also had a very big impact on Jane’s life,” says Reid, who also notes the influence of Dagg’s mother, Mary Quayle Innis, whose writing fuelled lessons given by Dagg’s father, celebrated academic Harold Innis. “When you see The Woman who Loves Giraffes, you’ll see that the relationship between Anne and her mother and Anne and her daughter were instrumental in Anne’s life,” notes Reid. Anne’s daughter, Mary, accompanies her on the triumphant return to the giraffe community and provides a fitting image of the generations of women touched by Dagg’s work. Dagg says she’s returning the favour to her mother with a newly written book on her, which is currently seeking publication.

Reid finds further parallels in the levels of attention that Dagg and her giraffes receive from the public compared to Goodall and her chimps. “Anne’s been flying under the radar here in Canada,” says Reid. “Similarly, giraffes have been flying under the radar. Everyone knows and loves giraffes, but they’re unaware that they’re in such danger.”

The film draws audiences’ attention to the fact that giraffe populations have plummeted dramatically in recent years. Just this week, the status of Kordofan and Nubian giraffes was upgraded by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to critically endangered on the Red List on Endangered Species. “When Ann was a biologist, she was just a biologist and now biologists are necessarily conservation biologists,” observes Reid. “There’s no distinguishing between the two because these animals are in such bad shape.”

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes couldn’t arrive at a more appropriate moment. Dagg’s renewed energy and re-immersion into the giraffe community ensures that her research is more relevant than ever as minds new and old raise awareness to preserve the species. Her own story, with all its ups and downs, can inspire a generation of women to claim their rightful place in the academic jungle and fight for their passions, whatever they may be.

The Woman Who Loves Giraffes opens at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Nov. 16.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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