Central DOCS Club: ‘Jane’ Review

Our second co-hosted Central DOCS Club event at Picturehouse Central featured a screening of Jane Goodall doc Jane followed by a discussion. Get involved in the next DOC Club screenings with Mountain on Dec 18th and Walk With Me on Jan 8th.

Editor Chloe Woods continues the discussion with her review of the film.

Apparently I can’t assume everybody knows who Jane Goodall is. Born in 1934, the world’s most famous and most-revered expert on chimpanzees first set foot in Africa in her early twenties, and in 1960 established the (ongoing) field study of chimps in Gombe, Tanzania. Not long afterwards she shook both the scientific community and the wider world with her groundbreaking observations into chimpanzee behaviour – particularly the revelation that they used and made tools – and since the mid-1980s she has travelled the world to campaign for conservation and environmental responsibility. That’s Jane Goodall1.

Brett Morgen’s documentary, Jane, expands on the bare bones of this biography via recent interviews with Goodall, narration from her 2001 autobiography and – most astonishingly – footage from the National Geographic archives, shot in the 1960s by Hugo van Lawick, and believed lost until 2014. Van Lawick, as the documentary notes, is considered one of the world’s greatest nature filmmakers, and it shows. He was also for a while Jane Goodall’s husband: that shows, too, despite the constraints of the assignment brief (Goodall was not, for example, best pleased to be informed the National Geographic wanted footage of her washing her hair when there were chimps to look at) and the objectivity a wildlife photographer must attempt to maintain between subject and camera. But in the early years at Gombe, where the largely untrained Goodall was free to work as she best pleased and did so according to her own values rather than the established ones of the scientific community – then rather colder and more dismissive towards viewing animals as individuals with personalities rather than automatic cogs in the grind-wheel of natural selection – Gombe was not a place of enforced objectivity, and likely better for it.

But it takes a while for Jane to get to that, and it has no inclination to hurry through its story. There are many shots, particularly in the opening minutes, of Goodall by herself in the African forest; then Goodall, and later others, interacting with the chimpanzees to whom she gave names. We learn a little about her childhood, about the part of her life spent (still with van Lawick) on the Serengeti, and about her subsequent campaigning work, and much of this is accompanied by Goodall’s own thoughts on the matter. She is hardly unaware of the startling position she occupied as a young woman doing work in Africa by herself, first feared-for and required to take her mother along as chaperone, then dismissed by her looks and her age when her research challenged prior belief. She muses also on the dangers of chimpanzees, not then known, but growing apparent through the years of research; the dangers to chimpanzees by close human contact, both accidentally and as deliberate harm; and, perhaps most intimately, on how she came by her own character and the single-minded confidence that would lead a person to watch the chimps for months upon end while making no apparent progress. She makes no apologies for having no interest in marriage until she met someone who shared her passion and, when it came to a choice between husband and that passion, no apologies for putting the passion and her ambition first. For though we learn about Jane’s relationships with her first husband2, her son and her parents, it’s clear the defining relationship of her life has been that with chimpanzees, both in aggregate and singularly.

So, from the caterpillar crawling on the branch to the infant chimp playing on the tent, Goodall’s calm, classic English accent leads the viewer through the grainy images; and though relatively few of the clips might correlate to the moments referenced, since chimps will rarely perform for camera and the most important events can hardly be predicted – that’s of no consequence. If we don’t see it as it happened first we are, after all, used to the illusions of cinema, and being in the right place and the right time – Africa, the young Jane Goodall with her hair back in the loose ponytail she still wears today – they are truer than many, weaving a tale it is difficult not to be drawn into. (Though it does get a little didactic towards the end, which is no crime in itself but clumsily shoehorned here.)

The strange thing about this is it almost disguises the fact that Brett Morgen, as a filmmaker, has not done anything outstanding. The critical world has been full of praise for this documentary – well, yes. Van Lawick’s footage is universally gorgeous and Goodall’s strength of character and intelligence shine through: beyond this, the construction of the documentary is on the unoriginal side. It’s very much as if Morgen, handed these impressive starting blocks from which to construct the documentary, fitted them together competently enough (and I’ll admit, combing through the archive footage must have been a hell of a job), then floundered when asked to impress upon it his own interpretation. The points of focus feel as though they’ve been riffed from Goodall’s autobiography and, if so, she must take credit for the narrative structure of Jane, which races through emotional milestones without lingering long enough to let their impact sink in, repeats itself to the point of patronisation, and uses trite, overblown musical prompts to spell out the moment’s mood. And as a result it is merely very good when, given the materials and subject matter at hand, it could well have been brilliant.

Goodall is very media-savvy and this film as much as anything will show her as she wants the world to see, but you can be both astute and genuine. There can be little doubt her love of chimps, and of the natural world more broadly, has driven her for fifty years; little doubt too, though it receives passing mention in this up-close-and-personal work, of the impact she’s had upon both the scientific and environmentalist communities. Jane treats us to details in the life of a remarkable woman from a perspective once thought lost forever. Even if Morgen might have been less condescending in his musical motifs, it’s well worth the watch. Because that’s Jane Goodall – the first and grandest of the Trimates3, and perhaps the most important primatologist in history.

1Some details which didn’t make it make it into the film but which this writer considers interesting: in 1962, after first developing her own ideas on chimp behaviour and marking herself out as an independent thinker, Goodall became a student of Newnham College, Cambridge as one of the few people to study for a PhD without first receiving a bachelor’s degree; she is vegetarian; and in 1987 or so Gary Larson referenced her in a comic which the staff at the Jane Goodall Institute described as an “atrocity” but Goodall herself was apparently quite entertained by.

2You wouldn’t know it from Jane, but Goodall has been married twice. Her second husband, Derek Bryceson, died of cancer in 1980 after about five years of marriage.

3There were three women who set out, via the encouragement of palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey, to study then-unknown great ape species in the 1960s and ‘70s. The second, the bombastic Dian Fossey, was immortalised in the 1988 Gorillas in the Mist three years following her murder at still-unconfirmed hands; the third, Birute Galdikas, is less well-known but like Goodall campaigns for environmental conservation and primate protection, in addition to continuing her research on orangutans in Indonesia. The unfortunate alternative name for the group is “Leakey’s Angels”. So now you know.

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