GIRAFFE – Review by Leslie Combemale
When my AWFJ editor assigned me Danish writer/director Anna Sofie Hartmann’s Giraffe to review, she had no way of knowing that only two years ago my parents sold our 1800s family farm to developers, who summarily plowed it and all the hundred-year-old trees down to make way for a new development. Ever since, I’ve been musing about place, memory, and belonging. Those subjects are exactly what are examined in Hartmann’s film. Like most viewers, I suspect, I watched it with a strange mix of dread, melancholy, acceptance and hope.
It’s summer in Denmark, and immigrant construction workers are busy building a long-planned tunnel between Denmark and Germany. On site is archeologist and museum professional Dara (Lisa Love Kongsli) who is tasked with cataloging found and unearthed objects, as well as examining old houses in the way of progress and approving them for demolition. She also interviews current and former occupants of these homes. A number of them are having a hard time making peace with moving on from the place where they’ve lived their lives and made so many memories.
In the process of going through these locations, Dara finds an abandoned house destined for destruction filled with books, photo albums, and diaries of former a resident, librarian Agnes Sørensen. She is also spending her time and making new memories with young Polish construction worker Lucek (Jakob Gierszal), which innervates sensitive considerations about her own life and where it’s headed.
“The past becomes present in the moment that we remember it”, says Hartmann about the layering of experiences and the connection we might feel to the characters Dara encounters in her work. Through Dara’s daily travels and encounters, she digs down into memory and our sense of place as humans, creating room for contemplation by not cramming dialogue where it wouldn’t be in real life. She allows the audience to take in the physical spaces, whether they are vast landscapes, or small, confined, and full of shadows, as we would if we were going through our own days, in our own lives. There is also an immediacy and sense of authenticity to the way Dara and her interviewees and new friends interact. There’s reason for that. Hartmann used non-professional actors for many of the secondary roles, including most of the Polish construction workers and many of the people Dara interviews. Early on in Giraffe, she speaks to elderly couple Lief and Birte about leaving their ancestral home. Those are real people describing their actual experiences.
An element of the film juxtaposes the immigrant experience of Eastern and Western Europeans, and how feelings of place and belonging can be easily taken for granted or skewed, depending on the situation and a person’s resources. It is part of the bigger question, “Where do we belong?”. In a way, that’s how the story is connected to the title and the first sequence of the film, in which we see a giraffe, clearly not in Africa but in some new environment, staring at the viewer. As Hartmann explains, “It doesn’t belong there, but maybe it does.”
In an interview, Hartmann talked about her inspiration for the film, as well as what stays with her from it, “If everything disappears, what really matters is the relationships that we form with other people. Everyone has a story. The nature of things is they will disappear, so enjoy everything while it’s here.” Giraffe is anchored in that philosophy. It makes watching quite a melancholy affair, but ultimately reminds us that it is in every moment that we are creating memories and our sense of place.
4 out of 5 stars.