Director: Brett Morgen
Running Time: 1:30
Release Date: 10/20/17 (limited); 10/27/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 26, 2017
When Jane Goodall arrived at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, she had little, if any, research experience and no college degree. Before her expedition, she worked as a waitress and then as a secretary. Goodall essentially was a blank slate from a scientific perspective, and that's exactly what Louis Leakey wanted for his planned study of chimpanzees, which would, in his mind, help to shed some light on what early humans must have been like. There were concerns about bias in regards to the study, and Goodall would remove such apprehensions. The only bias she possessed was a love of animals and a desire for adventure.
In Jane, a documentary on Goodall's life and work, we learn that, as a child, she dreamed of talking to animals like Doctor Dolittle and of living among them like Tarzan. It was almost inevitable, then, that, given her name, the press would come close to the second literary connection. When she returned from her first research expedition, some of the headlines would play with the fact that she shares a name with Tarzan's love interest. Some of them also dismissed her findings, because, after all, how could the scientific community really trust the results. The headlines made sure to point out that she was a woman or, as one paper referred to her, "a comely miss."
Given the chance, Goodall, whose voice narrates the entirety of the film (by means of archival recordings and audiobooks) and who appears for interviews in the present day, would probably laugh at it, considering how much she has accomplished in the decades since that first expedition in 1960. After all, when asked if she was worried about the fact that a grown chimpanzee could kill or severely maim her, she admits that the thought didn't cross her mind at the time. Nobody knew much of anything about these animals until her work, so she had no reason to worry about such things.
She's not afforded the chance to comment on anything other than the specifics of her work and her life by director Brett Morgen, though. Instead, he has made a straightforward, biographical film that is mostly insightful for the footage of Goodall in the jungle with the chimpanzees that would become almost like friends to her.
Over a hundred hours of this footage was "lost" until a few years ago (It was located in an archive that, apparently, nobody bothered to examine for several decades), and it comprises the bulk of the film. Morgen and editor Joe Beshenkovsky have made a fine narrative of the footage, giving us a sense of Goodall's trial-and-error approach to being accepted by the apes, the trouble of having wild animals running free among the relative comforts of the research camp, and the terrible, unintended consequences of previously unknown interaction between humans and apes.
What we see is a Goodall who, at the age of 26, is curious, resourceful, and fearless. Her narration may give us the context of the images, but it's mostly unnecessary, as we see her climbing rocks, patiently waiting for hours and days just to spot one of the chimps, and finally trying to offer them bananas in her outstretched hand.
When one ape does take the banana from her hand, it pauses for a bit, as if it's considering if it should respond directly to the "white ape" that gave it the food. By this point, Goodall has seen the apes making and using tools—a characteristic that previously had been seen as one of the unique things that define what a human being is—taking the leaves off sticks and shoving the bare sticks into mounds to catch termites. This opens up two possibilities: Either chimpanzees are human, or scientists need to redefine what a human is.
There is possibly a little editorial cheating here, since someone had to capture the footage. That role belonged to Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch baron and wildlife photographer who accompanied Goodall on her second expedition (Her mother had to go with her on the first trip, because it was unheard of for a single woman to do such work on the behalf of polite, academic society without a chaperone of some sort). The two would marry, have a son, and be separated because of each one's respective work (She wanted to study the chimps, and he wanted to film the animals of the Serengeti). Goodall admits that many of her ideas about being a parent came from observing the way a female chimpanzee raised her son, whose story's tragic end suggests that the relationship might not have been the best influence.
On her first trip, she names all of the apes in the reclusive group that accepts her, and we get a real sense of how that group functions as its own, isolated society. For whatever shortcomings the film may have in allowing us to know Goodall beyond her biography, it certainly does not skimp on allowing us to see how she and, later, her research team learned about the apes and what they did learn. It's not revelatory at this point, of course, but that's inconsequential: This is witnessing firsthand how information about chimpanzees became common knowledge.
We may want more from Goodall, who seems open and honest about her experiences, but what we get is fascinating. Jane works as a serviceable biography, but the film is more informative as a direct account of scientific history being made.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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