'Jane' Explores Legacy of Incomparable, Unstoppable Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall biography, Jane Goodall documentary

‘Jane’ draws from over 100 hours of unseen footage of Jane Goodall at work with chimps in the ’60s.

Few films today let you simply travel with someone into parts unknown. Thanks to the documentary Jane, a new generation of animal lovers can learn more about the world’s most famous paleontologist, Jane Goodall, who revealed that we aren’t much different from our closest living relative, the chimpanzee.

Using 100 hours of footage hidden from view until now, director Brett Morgen highlights scenes from Goodall’s groundbreaking discoveries about chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania,  in the ’60s and blends them with recent interviews of the 83-year-old Jane Goodall.

Goodall reflects in the film: “I wanted to do things men did and women didn’t. I wanted to talk to animals, like Doctor Dolittle, and move among them without fear, like Tarzan.”

That fortitude to step into the habitat of animals who could easily rip her head off is on full display in Jane. It’s as if the young Goodall, at 23, treats the wandering chimps like strangers who have the potential to be friends. She displays impressive patience, 24/7 doggedness and, thanks to a PhD in ethology from Newnham College, a deep knowledge of how animals behave.

If you know the Jane Goodall story, and saw other films about her, you won’t be shocked to see her grooming, wrestling and playing with chimps. Those moments set up more emotional vignettes in Jane, such as when a chimp’s baby dies. You can see the pain etched on Goodall’s face, mirroring the mother chimp’s own suffering. Such a bond between woman and animal has rarely been captured on camera.

Jane Goodall biography, Jane Goodall documentary

Chimp expert Jane Goodall and ‘Jane’ director Brett Morgen at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017. Photo by Todd Williamson via Getty Images

In one of her books, Jane Goodall describes Gombe as a vibrant potpourri of colors and feelings, but the director of Jane had only black-and-white footage at his disposal. He and his team spent 250 hours color-grading the footage, which brought Goodall’s journey back to life. Seeing Africa in all its bold-green glory adds another layer of realism to this already intimate portrait.

The addition of music to the film, thanks to the legendary Philip Glass, adds another dimension of vibrancy to footage captured with little sound.

At the heart of Jane, though, is a love story. And not just a love story between human and beast. The footage used in Jane also profiles wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, who arrived to help Goodall chronicle her studies for National Geographic. We see how they first interact, with Goodall admitting she hated how he constantly smoked cigarettes. But as the fates would have it, Goodall fell in love with van Lawick and they later married.

If you look closely at the doc, you can catch those flirty glances Goodall shoots his way. Or his not-so-subtle attempt to get close to Goodall, as if he knows their attraction to wildlife will bleed into their personal lives.

It would be remiss to discuss Jane Goodall and not point out the blatant sexism ingrained in the culture at the time of her rising status. Her face was splashed on newspaper front pages and magazine covers with headlines as unimaginative as “Beauty and the Beast.”

In the film, Goodall says, “People said my fame was due to my legs. It was so stupid it didn’t bother me.” Instead, she turned that lemon into lemon-meringue pie and used most of the attention to raise money for wildlife charities and groups, build research hubs and hire students to help collect data.

In an interview, director Morgen said, “Her inner strength matches and surpasses that external beauty.”

Gray areas pepper the film, though. What we see so plainly with Goodall’s interaction with the chimps, we don’t see so clearly in her relationship with van Lawick, which fractures. Ten years after their marriage, and now parents of one son, they divorced. It’s interesting for film viewers to study the footage of the latter half. Did any body language speak to the rift between the two?

Jane Goodall biography, Jane Goodall documentary

The young Jane Goodall with wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick, who would later marry Goodall. Photo by AccuSoft Inc. / Abramorama

Could it be that Jane Goodall’s global spotlight pushed van Lawick’s photographs to the shadows? That seems to be a running theory. But thanks to Jane’s lack of definitive answers either way, we’re left to question how fame plays a role in seemingly idyllic relationships.

Morgen knows a juicy archival tale when he sees it. He’s best known for telling the story of Kurt Cobain in Montage of Heck, which used hours of never-before-seen footage of the grunge pioneer. He also directed The Rolling Stones doc Crossfire Hurricane and even quarterbacked the 30 for 30 episode on O.J. Simpson.

A common thread running through his films is the love his subjects have for what they do, whether it’s music, football or wildlife. As Morgen told reporters: “I think ultimately the movie is about passion. It’s Hugo’s passion for his cinematography; Jane’s passion for being a primatologist; Philip Glass’ passion for his mastery of music.”

Also intriguing is how the film focuses solely on Goddall’s pre-activist career. By foregoing her very busy life in the ’70s and beyond, the filmmakers had us pay close attention to Goodall’s budding love for chimps. You can almost feel the wet soil underneath her feet as she crouches to sneak a peek at chimps picking bugs out of each other’s hair. You can feel that warm hug as one of the chimps embraces Goodall with abandon. Most importantly, we learn how these chimps are not much different from us: they fight, they kiss, they hug, they get angry, they get scared.

Jane Goodall biography, Jane Goodall documentary

Jane Goodall, who often speaks about wildlife conservation, has won more than 40 awards for her work with chimps in the wild. Photo by Mark Schierbecker via Flickr

Due to the up-close footage, we can study the arch of a chimp’s eyes when something distasteful happens. Such a personal connection to nature doesn’t cross our path often, even on the big screen. We could watch Attenborough’s Blue Planet II series until we see electric eels in our sleep, but Jane adds a critical element to the nature documentary: the human story.

More than just a portrait of a primatologist as a young woman, Jane asks us to bridge the gap between human and beast and see the humanity in wildlife.

Last word goes to Morgen, who succinctly sums up what Jane Goodall’s achievements can teach everyone: “She is a living example of how every moment matters. Every second counts. We are only on this earth for a short amount of time, and we get to decide how we want to use that time. And if one thinks that the purpose of life is to leave the world in just a little bit better place than we found it, it’s hard to think of anyone who has contributed more than Jane Goodall.”

Jane premieres on National Geographic March 12. end

Don’t miss our interview with Dr. Jane Goodall: Inside Jane Goodall’s Tireless Fight to Save the Environment.


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