The knowledge that other animals are capable of using tools is often taken for granted. But until 1960, when Jane Goodall reported chimpanzees stripping the leaves from sticks in order to dip them into termite mounds, it was the first time tool modification had been observed in the wild. Her discovery would force science to redefine tools, redefine humans, or accept chimpanzees as humans. ‘This really was a moon landing moment,’ explains director Brett Morgen at the London release of his new documentary, Jane. ‘It was something that happened in the 1960s that could never happen again.’
His documentary is a masterpiece of compilation. Over 100 hours of never-seen-before footage, which had been tucked away in the National Geographic archives for 50 years, have been blended together to recreate Goodall’s genesis years in the Gombe jungle, West Africa. We see the 26-year-old set up camp in the woods with little more than a secretarial qualification. We see her begin observations of chimps from a distance. We see her try to introduce herself in a community of chimpanzees and get closer to our ape cousins than anyone in history.
The remarkable fact is all of the footage was shot after the event – the snippets were filmed after Goodall made contact with the animals, and after the arrival of National Geographic photographer (and her eventual partner) Hugo von Lawick. A notorious perfectionist, von Lawick painstakingly composed each shot so that not a single one was overexposed, often laying beach sand in front of the chimps to reflect the light and so capture the definition on their faces. By stringing together these pearls of film, Morgan creates the illusion that we are seeing the forest with Goodall for the first time. Around the visuals, Phillip Glass (best-known for the haunting tracks in The Hours and The Thin Red Line) fuses a palpitating central theme with the unsettling, shrill calls of chimps on-screen. Deliberately, the sound and images evoke a strange ecosystem in harmony, and the simple idea of a woman, alone, studying it. ‘I felt invincible back then,’ Goodall narrates. ‘Nothing could hurt me if I was careful.’
Once von Lawick is officially introduced to the on-screen proceedings, ‘we get the pleasure watching Hugo fall in love with Jane on camera,’ says Morgen. With von Lawick in the picture, Goodall’s story becomes world-famous and her life more layered: we watch von Lawick watching Goodall watching the chimps. Unfortunately, the film barely touches on her transition to Dr Goodall in these years – she was admitted to Cambridge to do a PhD on chimp behaviour without even having an undergraduate degree.
What Jane does cover is Goodall’s compulsion to her work, and her prioritising of it over a then-traditional family life. It also explores the remarkable perseverance it took for her to challenge a male-dominated field of exploration and science. ‘In all my childhood dreams I was a man,’ she reveals, ‘probably because I wanted to do things which men did and women didn’t.’ Being a woman who wanted to do explore and study is arguably the least remarkable thing about her and thoughout the film, she emphasises how lucky she feels to have found the chance to live and work in Gombe, perhaps in spite of the constraints on women at the time. ‘The stars had a lot to do with it,’ she says. Humility aside, Jane shows how Goodall’s resolve, bravery and toil shaped that chance into a lifetime of work for the natural world.
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