“Do we really need another picture about Jane and the chimps? What more could be said?”
Jane Goodall said that about her own film as way of introducing it. Jane features the story of the young, English girl with no scientific training observing the family of chimpanzees in the Tanzanian jungle that you’ve likely heard before, but it does so using never-before-seen footage shot by her late ex-husband, renowned nature photographer Hugo Lawick. This footage is overlaid with narration from Ms. Goodall herself both reflecting on her life with all the perspective of her eighty-three years and reading from her writings. Due to Mr. Lawick’s footage, it is a beautiful film. Due to Ms. Goodall’s words, it is an affecting and inspiring film as well.
This new documentary was directed by Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture), and he brings his considerably aptitude for assembling found-footage to bear on this project. His method of interlacing archival material with a present-day interview is superficially the same as someone like Errol Morris, but where Morris uses interview and image to qualify one another, Morgen uses them to support each other. He shows what she remembers how she remembers it. He does gently prod his subject at times, challenging Ms. Goodall to justify some of her decisions, but then he lets her justification linger like an ellipsis, inviting the thinking viewer to decide for themselves whether or not her actions are justifiable.
It would hardly be novel to question Ms. Goodall’s methods. Cries of “She’s doing it wrong!” have dogged her throughout her life. She was, indeed, untrained and un-vetted, and she did, indeed, do some things in her research that a typical naturalist would not do. Morgen includes the episode with the polio epidemic in this film in which Ms. Goodall and her crew potentially expose the chimps to the disease and then inoculate them against it. Both acts are scientifically unconscionable; Ms. Goodall claims that it would have been unconscionable to let the apes continue to suffer. But her atypical way of doing research is what led to her greatest discoveries as well, and there is no denying the impact that her work has had on the world. Jane Goodall is a both and icon and an iconoclast, but when you don’t fit the established expectations of what an effective naturalist should be—male, degreed—what else can you be? That Ms. Goodall accomplished what she accomplished is remarkable. That she did it with the world laughing at her is beyond belief.
I should return to the footage that makes up the majority of this film though. Thought lost, it was discovered in the National Geographic archives in 2014. It records the early days of Ms. Goodall’s work in Tanzania, albeit after Mr. Lawick joined her with his camera of course. Mr. Lawick is rightly lauded for his photography. He exemplifies all the best traits of a great nature photographer – patience, fearlessness, a nimble eye, and a nuanced understanding of light and shadow. Jane made me want to seek out more of Mr. Lawick’s work as much as it made me want to read Ms. Goodall’s writings. Combined with a typical Phillip Glass score – propulsive, staccato, and packed with crescendos and suspended notes – Mr. Lawick’s footage adopts a omnipresent quality, as in, you’d think only the invisible, all-seeing God would be granted the opportunity to see wildlife in this way. But no, Mr. Lawick and his camera were there too.
When they are as skillfully constructed as Jane, I never tire of watching nature documentaries. I am so small, and the world is so big, and I see so much more of it this way. We look to scripture and tradition to find God, and both scripture and tradition invite us to look to the natural world as well to see God at work and play in the world around us. It is our privilege to care for this beautiful world. On its own, it races toward entropy, but with us in its service, it rises to become more and better than it would otherwise be. We are part of it. Our futures are bound together. Ms. Goodall went into Tanzania to try to discover more about humanity’s origin, who we were. She discovered a mirror to more clearly see who we are now and a vista onto who we could be in the future if we reach beyond ourselves to care for each other. That “each other” includes you and me and the world around us. Even if we go to Mars, we will be able to stay there only if we make it like Earth. We humans cannot go alone into the beyond. We are part of this place, and it is part of us, and we go together if we go at all.