Much has been written about the extraordinary career of Jane Goodall, whose decades observing the chimpanzees of Tanzania have revealed how much they and humans have in common (and point to differences as well), and whose efforts on behalf of wildlife preservation have earned her renown and admiration. Nor has there been a lack of films and television programs about her, or in which she has been interviewed.
Still, one must welcome Brett Morgen’s exceptional documentary, which amounts to a virtual autobiography in which, in new interviews, the octogenarian Goodall, certainly the world’s best-known primatologist, narrates—and comments upon—the events of her life, summing things up by admitting that while personal effort and determination played a great part, so too did sheer luck. What else could explain how, as a young woman who always dreamed of studying animals, she was selected by Louis Leakey to undertake her African project in 1960 (her lack of a university education considered a point in her favor, since it would preclude any “professional” preconceptions)? Or that, at the very moment when the original project was reaching a threatened close, she observed one of the chimpanzees using a stick to extract ants from a mound for food—a finding that challenged the common belief that man’s ability to use tools distinguished him from all other animal species, and led to funding that allowed her work to continue?
Goodall’s observations alone would make the film worthwhile, but “Jane” possesses an equally important element in its employment of more than a hundred hours of footage of the young Goodall shot by Hugo van Lawick, who was sent by National Geographic to record the progress of her work in 1962 and would go on to win recognition for the remarkable footage he would compile during years in the Serengeti (as well as become Goodall’s husband in 1964, their courtship wryly recounted here). Morgen uses this treasure-trove, long presumed lost, to fashion a narrative to complement Goodall’s recollections, adding to it excerpts from news footage and earlier interviews, as well as animated graphics.
The resultant mixture has been smoothly edited by Joe Besenkovsky, aided by Morgen and Will Zndaric, into a fascinating portrait, made all the more hypnotic by Philip Glass’s typically insistent, throbbing music score. One of the most intriguing elements is certainly the comparison that Goodall herself draws between her own pregnancy, which resulted in the birth of her and van Lawick’s son Grub, and the birth of a male chimpanzee, which she christened Flint, to Flo, one of the community’s females. She says that she learned a good deal about maternal conduct from watching Flo and Flint, perhaps as much as from her own experiences as a mother.
The bond between chimpanzee mother and son, however, takes a turn that adds a dark shadow to the narrative—proving that profound grief is not an emotion exclusive to humans. There are other sequences—one showing that the animals are also prone to violence (what Goodall describes as a primitive form of war), and another involving an outbreak of illness among the chimpanzees—that are, on the one hand, grim and, on the other, poignant. By contrast Goodall’s reminiscences about the eventual breakup of her marriage (though she and her husband remained friends) and the upbringing of Grub have an analytical, matter-of-fact air that only occasionally allows glimpses of how deeply she feels about then.
“Jane” shows that in a very real sense Goodall has anthropomorphized the chimpanzee—by demonstrating through her long, patient observation of their lives how much we humans share with them, a reality explained by the process of evolution itself. It also reminds us how our appreciation of other species has evolved over the last century, due in large measure to the work of dedicated people like her in educating the rest of us—and encouraging the world to take the conservationist actions required to save her subjects and others like them. The outcries that occur today when rare or protected animals are killed for sport are evidence of how far her work has brought us, but also of how far we have yet to go.
This is an engrossing, beautifully made documentary about a truly remarkable woman, and a fitting tribute to her contribution to the work of wildlife preservation.