When Anne Innis headed into the Transvaal in 1956, there were no rules or set procedures for how to observe animal behavior in the wild, let alone how to do so as a woman in a profession dominated by men, and in a country where race relations were based on long-standing animosities rather than on common sense. Alone in a strange country, a pioneer in a scientific field with no set practices, Innis had to invent methods for observing and cataloguing wild animals on the fly, guided by her own sound scientific instincts. In the process she lifted the veil on the secret life of one of the planet’s most alien of mammals, the giraffe.
For years after that historic trip, though her name was legendary among other giraffe researchers, it never rose to the global level of her animal behavior studying successors, superstars like Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey. She wrote papers about unique, entirely unsuspected wild giraffe behavior, and compiled studies on the physics of animal walking and running gaits that employed novel film methods, all culminating in the publication of 1976’s The Giraffe: Its Biology, Behavior and Ecology, which would serve as the foundational text on giraffe behavior for decades to come. And yet, no university would grant her tenure, and no research institution would grant her funding to return to Africa to continue the studies she had begun by virtue of pure grit and personal persuasion back in 1956.
Isolated in Canada, cut off from university support and contacts, the woman who was first in a field she ushered into being was compelled to renounce field studies and started her own publishing company to print her findings of systemic sexism in Canadian academia. Her story is a heart-breaking one of genius and courage not only unrewarded, but systemically belittled, and for far too long it existed only on the pages of books read by giraffe enthusiasts and the occasional online profile (you can read our February 2019 Women In Science profile here).
But Innis’s story is one intimately connected with that foundational film she took on her 1956 field study, and to feel its impact, you really need to see those images of a young 24-year-old student, full of life and courage, hopping into her ramshackle blue car and heading into the wild to do what nobody had yet done. The Woman Who Loves Giraffes, written and directed by Alison Reid (The Baby Formula), tells the story of Anne Innis Dagg precisely right, cutting with poignant effect between Innis’s original grainy footage, full of life and optimism, and modern footage of a radically changed Africa, and a woman who has weathered every imaginable personal and professional storm to emerge again, at the age of 86, as the voice of an international movement.
Reid expertly weaves between the promise of Innis’s 1956 journey, as exemplified in her early footage and scientific notebooks, and the cold isolation pushed upon her by the academic world upon her return. We are ushered into the presence of a scientific field’s founding images, and then brought up hard against representatives of a scientific community who, forty years later, still feel they have nothing to apologize for in having effectively ended the career of one of their discipline’s most motivated and innovative figures.
The contrast between individual hope and bureaucratic inertia could not be more stark, and at the center of it is the modern figure of Anne Innis Dagg, her eyes brimming with tears at the memory of decades-old wounds, but her words still full of the fire of a survivor. She is a person who has lost many battles against titanic foes, but who has never been beaten. Amidst the sharp adversities of her professional rejection, the personal tragedy of the loss of her supportive husband, and the long slow press of being apparently forgotten by a world she had enriched by her daring, she remained true to herself and uncompromising in her goal of using whatever resources were at her disposal to inform us of the majesty of wild nature, and the inequities still remaining in human nature.
Reid pulls no punches in portraying the starkness of the situation facing giraffes today, but neither does she refuse us the deep satisfaction of seeing Dagg properly honored at last.
Through letters and film, interviews and photographs, the nearly lost life of a scientific legend is reconstructed, saved for all who come later. There is truly something humbling about being ushered into the presence of this personality, seeing her creating scientific techniques from nothing with all the unbounded optimism of youth, only to have all the means for accomplishing her life’s goals stripped away from her, one by one, and yet to survive and be reborn anew as a generation of giraffe researchers and keepers who grew up on her books find and celebrate her at last. Reid pulls no punches in portraying the starkness of the situation facing giraffes today, but neither does she refuse us the deep satisfaction of seeing Dagg properly honored at last. Tears and anger meld in the documentary’s closing act, and push the viewer by their combination into that rarest of states: a need to act.
Reid’s instinct for how the past and the present inform each other is the guiding pulse for the entire film, and provides the space and tension for the viewer to experience, rather than merely observe, Dagg’s inspiring, complex life. It is a film of a continent and a scientist finding each other at one brilliant moment in time, and eventually, after many trials and many more tears, doing so again.
The Woman Who Loves Giraffes opens in Washington DC at Landmark West End Cinema on February 14 and in Los Angeles at Laemmle Monica Film Center on February 21 with subsequent engagements nationwide.
What You Should Know About Alison Reid
ALISON REID (Director, Writer, Producer) is an award-winning director who began her career as a stunt coordinator and second unit director. After accumulating 300 credits, she formed Free Spirit Films to produce projects diverse in genre but similar in their exploration of the human spirit. Reid received the 2007 Crystal Award for Emerging Director from DGC/WIFT. Her independent feature, The Baby Formula (2009), sold internationally, won the Audience Award at the Inside Out LGBT Film Festival, ‘Best LGBT Film’ at Nashville Film Festival and was nominated for the Golden Zenith at the Montreal World Film Festival. Reid is currently directing two episodes of Good Witch (Hallmark). Her television directing credits also include Hudson & Rex, Saving Hope, Heartland and Murdoch Mysteries. Her second unit directing credits include The Umbrella Academy (Netflix).
All photos and film poster credit to Zeitgeist Films.