I wanted to do things men did and women didn’t.
It was 1960 when Louis Leakey enlisted his animal-loving secretary Jane Goodall to spearhead a one-person study of the Kasakela chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania. She had no formal training or experience with the task, but that was part of her appeal. Leakey didn’t want preconceptions and misguided expertise to cloud what would have to be objective research. The only way to truly know the chimpanzees’ capabilities and by comparison those capabilities of our own early ancestors was through an outsider perspective. Who knew Goodall would ultimately change the course of scientific observation on her way towards building a life born from this single opportunity? Here’s a woman who dreamed of living in Africa as a child before accomplishing exactly that and much more without an end in sight.
What better way to look at that dream’s fulfillment than over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage depicting it in near real-time? That’s what director Brett Morgen had at his disposal once the reels were rediscovered in 2014. Renowned photographer Hugo van Lawick shot these movies, the man National Geographic hired to document Goodall after her research finally bore fruit and whom she would eventually marry upon project’s end. They portray as much candidness as professionalism, as much impromptu moments of pure inspiration as static glimpses of wildlife undisturbed except by the reflection of light off the camera’s lens. Just as the chimps grow more comfortable, so too does she. Not only did Hugo capture animals, he also chronicled Goodall’s solidifying of identity.
This is what Jane provides: the woman behind the research. Morgen isn’t crafting these archival images into a document solely consisting of Gombe, but as one indelible moment of many that ultimately make up Goodall’s life. They show us a confident young woman entering the unknown with poise and excitement; a fearless explorer who believed wholeheartedly in the idea that wildlife wouldn’t harm her if she didn’t harm it. So she traverses the snake-riddled terrain in search of chimps that won’t run away from her. She makes Africa her home, the isolation and importance of the task everything she could have hoped to receive. And when “Graybeard” becomes the first to not react to her presence—to prove she’s been accepted—everything changes. Goodall’s future starts being written.
Morgen lets her narrate the story with only a few instances where he cuts in with a question or request for clarification, the imagery therefore composed in response to her recollections. We move through her initial assignment into the next alongside van Lawick. We learn about her marriage, her son Grub’s birth, her time in the Serengeti (where Hugo would go after Gombe), and the continuing and growing work still being done with the chimps that let her enter their community so the world could see. Goodall touches upon the inherent misogyny of her position whether the early dismissals of her findings or the later media-fueled transformation into a celebrity. We’re exposed to her humanity, sacrifices, and drive to save these creatures from the looming threats we provide.
It’s an attractive film much like Morgen’s previous document of Kurt Cobain entitled Montage of Heck. There are definitely aesthetic similarities in his use of animated graphics (depicting research as motif rather than information) and letters alongside a mix of film and photography. He mainly focuses on the partnership between Goodall and the chimps because she does with her words. So much of what she became and did stemmed from her engagement with these animals. She even adopted her parenting style off of what she witnessed between the community’s matriarch Flo and her offspring Flint. Here was the proof that so much of what we are as humans is genetic in origin, that we aren’t so unique in our problem solving skills, spectrum of emotions, or aggression.
While she didn’t know about the existence of the latter—beyond wild animals being “wild”—due to there being no research about chimps until she wrote it, the truth of its nightmarish cost will rear its head. So too come heartbreaking events on both personal and professional levels. It wasn’t all fun and games with bananas, nor should it have been. To learn about a species is to understand the good times and bad. Suffering is therefore an inevitability and just as she suffers from the result of her choices, so too do they. But it’s through these hard times that we see the biggest similarities between us. It’s the depression and jealousies, the guilt and the regret that reminds us a well-lived life isn’t devoid of drama.
And beyond the many wonderful insights from Goodall as she takes us back through this journey, Jane is simply a well-produced work of captivating archival footage. We get to watch as these chimpanzees observe her stranger, test their boundaries, and exist as though there’s nothing to fear. We see Goodall mugging for the camera with tongue out, tickling Flint, and juggling the responsibilities inherent to her work and those to her family. There’s the playfulness of chimps batting her hand away from their food stash and the unbridled rage as they attack a group that defected from their community. There’s the joy of following one’s passion and the depression of unavoidable tragedies. Jane’s is a life that inspires generations—one of perseverance, intelligence, and empathy against all odds.
courtesy of TIFF