On Sept. 11, 2001, renowned primatologist and environmental advocate Jane Goodall was in New York on business. She had planned to catch a flight out to visit a high school to give a talk on how we can find a reason to hope. That didn’t happen, of course. She stayed in the city in the aftermath of the attacks, and, eight days later, was on her way to that high school. She was depressed.
“I thought, ‘What am I going to say to these children?’ ” Goodall says. “It was really tough. And I didn’t know what I would say until I was on the plane.”
She stood up in front of that high school and delivered an inspiring speech, because that is, after all, what Jane Goodall does. Ever since she was plucked from her secretarial job in the 1960s and sent to live with chimps in Gombe, she’s been something like the face of hope and progress for her sponsoring organization National Geographic and later her own nonprofit Roots & Shoots. As an official U.N. Messenger of Peace, optimism is literally in her job title. But there’s something comforting in knowing that even such a shining example of persistence and courage has sometimes fallen into despair. Like the rest of us, she has had to find her way back to the sun. With Brett Morgen’s riveting documentary, Jane, we have a raw and intimate glimpse at how the lady became a legend and symbol of aspiration — mostly by trying and failing and trying again.
Morgen, who has previously documented renegade outsider men like Kurt Cobain and film producer Robert Evans, tells me he had been looking for a new direction in his work when National Geographic brought him this documentary project.
“My whole career, I’ve been telling these stories about men,” he says. “Unless you’re woke, the reality is most archival footage in the ’50s and ’60s focused on men. For someone who does the work I do, the opportunity to tell these female-centric stories doesn’t happen that often.” He’d jumped at the chance to work with Goodall and to sort through the 140 hours that her late ex-husband Hugo van Lawick had shot of their research and expeditions, because, to Morgen, Goodall was a “rock star,” albeit a little different from the ones he’d already been covering. Goodall took more convincing.
“The first question I asked Jane was, ‘Do you get tired of telling your story,’ and she said, ‘Depends on who’s asking the questions.’ ” Morgen laughs, “I was like, ‘Lady, I am here to tell your story. I’m on your team.’ ” But as the three-hour interview he’d scheduled with her stretched into three days, Morgen found he appreciated her reservedness. “She will not put on a fake smile. You wanna do a selfie? No. She hates looking into the lens.” This is a woman who has been subjected to endless interviews since the 1960s, when documentary crews followed her every move and newspapers labeled her the “comely girl” living with chimps. Still, Morgen says he was able to pull a Frost/Nixon and mull over his failed interactions on that first day to “alter the discourse.”
“I had already cut the movie when I interviewed Jane. Her answers about Hugo were really lacking on Day One. I knew the film wasn’t going to come together if I couldn’t penetrate that silence, so I showed her a sequence of her and Hugo falling in love.” She’d never seen the images contained in that sequence before — furtive, joyful glances shared and Jane frolicking in the grass and waving to her partner in life and work — and that opened up an avenue of her memory that she hadn’t gone down in years. Morgen also says that Jane, an astute viewer who’s been making films of her own for 55 years, recognized that what he was doing with the footage was different from the other films made about her life.
In Jane, there are no dry explanatory bits, and no easy epiphanies. The film is an immersive experience, its emotion washing over you with a succession of breathtaking images and poignant moments that crescendo and fall almost in a circular pattern, much like Philip Glass’ monumental score. In fact, Morgen says he recut Jane after he received Glass’ music, so that the animals seemed to be choreographing their movements to it.
Goodall lights up when she talks about how Morgen animated her old journals, so that viewers catch little bits and pieces of her unadulterated thoughts and observations. “I think those early journals, it was so uninhibited, because I hadn’t been to college, and I was just doing what I was doing as a child, making nature notes. That’s what I was criticized about when I went to Cambridge.” There, they told her that she wasn’t supposed to give the chimps names or acknowledge their personality or emotion. “I knew they were wrong, because of the teacher I’d had as a child — my dog. You can’t share your life with a dog, without knowing that, of course, animals have personalities and minds and feelings.”
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But the scenes in the film that connect the most for her were those with her mother, who accompanied Goodall on her first Gombe expedition, enduring snakes, scorpions, raiding baboons and a drunkard chef in the most primitive conditions. “I was up in the forest everyday, and people said, ‘Oh you’re so brave,’ but it was she who was brave,” Goodall says.
Morgen had originally intended this documentary to become a kind of allegory for the Adam and Eve story, tracing Goodall and van Lawick’s settling of a lush jungle untouched by man, falling in love, having a child and eventually divorcing, with the story capping off with Goodall meeting her second husband, Derek Bryceson — like a second love had stirred in her the passion to continue. Through interviewing Goodall and trying to get her to bring out this storyline he’d already devised, he realized he was completely wrong about the trajectory of his film, and maybe about Goodall herself.
“When Jane returned to Gombe after things fell apart with Hugo … I suddenly knew that was the end of the film,” Morgen says. “In that context, it’s not sad they got divorced. It’s actually the logical conclusion. We weren’t left with a sense of pathos about the breakup of their marriage, but almost a sense of aspiration and joy that these two people were put on this Earth to do what they were doing — Jane in Gombe and Hugo on the Serengeti, photographing animals.”
Like Goodall, Morgen realized you can’t fight fate, and whether the two of them knew the impact this film would have on its audiences — one of immense joy, wonder and, yes, hope — it’s there all the same. Morgen had set out to make a love story; he didn’t know it would be about the love one woman has for her work.