Jane Goodall Documentary 'Jane' Reintroduces Her Work in a Delightful Way

The documentary 'Jane' is comprised of archival footage of the famous primatologist Jane Goodall, and a new interview by filmmaker Brett Morgen.
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Jane Goodall Photo

Gombe, Tanzania: David Greybeard was the first chimp to lose his fear of Jane, eventually coming to her camp to steal bananas and allowing Jane to touch and groom him. As the film JANE depicts, Jane and the other Gombe researchers later discontinued feeding and touching the wild chimps.

Brett Morgen’s Jane is the story of British primatologist Jane Goodall’s years in the Tanzanian bush in the 1960s. She was the first to conduct a long-term study of chimpanzees in the wild. At 83 years of age, Goodall remains one of the world’s leading experts on these primates. She had first been an assistant to naturalist Louis Leakey and his wife, paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey; at 26 years of age, with only a high school diploma, Goodall was recruited by the couple to conduct the five-year study that would prove their theory that primates were members of the human family tree.

Morgen’s narrative documentary begins with archival footage of Goodall in a small craft, arriving in the Gombe River Preserve. She explains, in voice-over, that Louis Leakey (father of paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey) wanted to avoid academics in his choice of a researcher for the chimpanzee project; Leakey, she says, was looking for someone with “a love of animals,” and an “open mind,” as well as “monumental patience.” Goodall’s organizational skills and her unprejudiced eye, as well as the fact that she could type and keep good field notes, was apparently more important than a knowledge of the primates.

In an interview Morgen conducted for the documentary, Goodall says that having read Edgar Rice BurroughsTarzan series as a girl, she dreamed only of working with animals in Africa. Her father gave her a stuffed toy chimpanzee named “Jubilee” that she has to this day. Although Goodall’s family had no money to send her to college, her mother encouraged her to fulfill her ambition of going to Africa. When she received an invitation from a girlfriend to visit her family’s home in Kenya, Goodall moved back in with her mother and started waitressing, saving her cash for the journey there. It is where she met Louis and Mary Leakey.

Young Jane Goodall Photo

Bournemouth, England: A young Jane Goodall poses for a picture in her school

In 1960, British authorities objected to Leakey sending a young, single woman into the bush, so Goodall’s mother accompanied her and stayed for five months. While Jane makes it appear as though Goodall was completely isolated for most of the five years of her stay, the researcher actually had a cook and other native people to help her maintain camp. The lingua franca was Swahili, a language in which Goodall is fluent. About two years into the project, Leakey was running out of funds for primate research; that is when the National Geographic Society, hearing of Goodall’s ongoing research, provided a grant. The caveat was that they would send a photographer to film her work.

Jane is being publicized as a documentary based on 100 hours of newly discovered footage in the archives of National Geographic, but some of the same footage appears in the more journalistic documentary, Marshall Flaum’s Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, broadcast in 1965, and narrated by Orson Welles. Just as in Jane, we hear Goodall’s voice as she comments on her observations of the chimps that she named after friends (“Leaky”) or for individual physical features (“Graybeard”), and personality traits (“Goliath”). On Morgen’s soundtrack, we hear these remarks mixed with ones from his on-camera interview. Marring this otherwise entertaining film is the non-stop score in which music often replaces the sounds of the bush or is heard over the calls of the chimps.

Jane Goodall Chimpanzee Photo

Gombe, Tanzania: Jane formed a close bond with young Fifi. As the film JANE depicts, Jane and the other Gombe researchers later discontinued feeding and touching the wild chimps.

Both documentaries are derived mostly from Hugo van Lawick’s 16-millimeter color footage; a renowned wildlife cinematographer, he was the one hired by National Geographic in 1962. Later, he became Goodall’s first husband. One of the charming aspects of Morgen’s documentary is the subtext of their blossoming romance. Lawick staged sequences, including the opening shot of Goodall’s arrival; as she tells Morgen, Lawick was a “perfectionist,” once asking her to reenact a scene five times. Unlike Flaum’s documentary, Jane has the advantage of hindsight, and addresses several criticisms of Goodall’s research, including the feeding stations she established when the chimps starting competing for bananas, and her killing of Graybeard after he contracted polio.

Jane includes rather astonishing footage, including the moment when Graybeard fashions a “tool” to extract termites from their mound. Until Goodall witnessed that, it was believed that humans were distinguished by their ability to fashion tools. As the documentary points out, it was Goodall’s research that proved Leakey’s belief that homo erectus did not originate solely in Asia, which was the prevailing theory in the 1960s. Leakey and the “Trimates,” the three women scientists he first hired, are the pioneers in his establishing the “great apes” as our progenitors. In addition to Goodall, they are Dian Fossey, who studied mountain gorillas, and Biruté Galdikas, who studies orangutans.

Goodall is attributed with establishing the primacy of the mother-child relationship through “Flo,” the dominant female in the chimpanzee group of 50 or 60 she observed in the Gombe River Preserve. It was the one constant in a continually evolving community of chimpanzees who form “families” of five or six, including babies who do not mature until 12 years of age. In Jane, she tells Morgen that when she became a mother, her teachers were her own mother, Dr. Spock (author of the bestseller “Baby and Child Care”) and Flo.

Jane is a wonderful introduction to Goodall’s work, and a testament to the significant contributions of women in primatology and paleoanthropology for which Goodall and Louis and Mary Leakey deserve much of the credit. The film is not fly-on-the wall documentary filmmaking, nor does it represent the conduct and scope of Goodall’s original field work. A comparison of all the similar footage in Jane and Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees would serve as a primer for the ways in which the mix of sound and image can lead to vastly different representations of the same staged and serendipitous events. While Jane is a film for most age groups, scenes of sick and dead animals, warring chimpanzees, and the odd scene of hyenas eating a zebra, make it inappropriate for young children. 

For information on film screenings of 'Jane,' click here.