It must have been a documentarian's dream when National Geographic handed Brett Morgen over 140 hours of 16mm color footage shot in the 1960s and previously unseen, detailing the work of Jane Goodall studying chimpanzees in the wild in Africa. And while the result of that visual windfall, Jane, may be neither the first nor the last film on the pioneering British primatologist, it will likely stand as the definitive portrait. Set to an almost overwhelmingly emotional original score by Philip Glass, this is a wondrous and moving account of a remarkable life that puts us right there with Goodall to share directly in her discoveries.
Abramorama is planning a limited theatrical release on Oct. 20, and this is a nature film that benefits greatly from being seen on the big screen. Its epic elements of adventure, romance, spiritual connection and lifelong dedication to a cause possess a sweep equal to any narrative feature. Incredible advances in digital video technology have elevated nonfiction wildlife filmmaking to new heights in the wake of the BBC's stunning Life series. However, there's an authenticity to the far-less-slick vintage footage here — a sense of marvel and a purity, if you will — that makes this a unique experience.
To build a thread through the reams of unlogged existing footage, Morgen took veteran indie cinematographer Ellen Kuras to Tanzania to spend two days filming a wide-ranging interview with Goodall, now in her early eighties and a subject of great candor, humor and warmth.
Goodall was a 26-year-old secretary who had always felt a yearning for Africa when Kenyan-born paleontologist Louis Leakey, looking for someone who would bring no scientific bias, chose her to travel to Tanzania in 1960 to conduct chimpanzee research for his behavioral study of great apes in relation to early hominids. (Leakey also commissioned Dian Fossey's study of gorillas.)
Given that Goodall's family had not been in a financial position to provide a university education, her qualifications were "an open mind, a passion for knowledge, patience and a love of animals." A companion was required for the trip, so Goodall's mother volunteered, setting up a camp clinic to treat local fishermen from miles around. That fact alone — two brave, curious, mutually supportive women venturing into wilderness territory — makes for a rousing feminist story.
With a capacity for recall that's both detailed (she took copious notes) and poetic, Goodall outlines her routine on that anxious first expedition, setting out at dawn into the hills each day and returning at dusk, waiting for the wary chimpanzee community to become accustomed to her presence among them. She feared that the funding would run out before she was able to get close enough for significant observation, but finally was able to gain the animals' trust.
A breakthrough came when she witnessed the senior male of the community, nicknamed David Greybeard, fashioning a tool from a twig to unearth ants from underground colonies. That discovery challenged the existing thinking that man had exclusivity on toolmaker skills. Goodall's findings confirmed that chimps were highly intelligent, social creatures; her reports made news worldwide, but were dismissed in some circles simply because they came from an untrained young woman in a scientific field dominated by men. But the attention also helped Leakey secure a grant from National Geographic to continue the research.
A condition of the funding was that National Geographic send a photographer in 1962 to visually document the study. Goodall initially was unhappy about renouncing her wilderness solitude, but she soon began to find Dutch nature filmmaker Hugo van Lawick good company.
Van Lawick's footage is the material that sat in a National Geographic archive for more than 50 years, unearthed in 2014. And what glorious footage it is. The super-saturated colors of '60s film stock practically sing on the screen, and the images of Goodall's first physical contact with the chimpanzees — starting with them sneaking into the camp to steal bananas from her tent — are thrilling. Goodall speaks of the affecting experience of looking into the eyes of another species and seeing "a thinking, reasoning personality looking back."
In Goodall's present-day interview and in some lovely images of them together in Africa, the film traces the gentle blossoming of companionship into romance during van Lawick's assignment, culminating with a marriage proposal telegram soon after he left. Sweet footage of their wedding and honeymoon in England is followed by a return to Tanzania, and the discovery that the chimp community's senior female, named Flo, had given birth to a baby male.
The birth of Goodall's own son, affectionately dubbed Grub, followed soon after. That parallel added rich layers of the personal to the work of Goodall; she acquired deeper knowledge of herself while savoring the almost unprecedented privilege of observing up close the relationship between parent and offspring in the wild.
Some of the most breathtaking material comes from when van Lawick's work took him to the Serengeti, and Goodall went with him, keeping tabs on the chimp community through students she had brought in on the project. She addresses the challenges that emerged later in her marriage with a down-to-earth lack of sentimentality. But sadness creeps into her voice as she recounts distressing developments among the chimpanzees, with some heartbreaking footage that should silence anyone who still doubts that animals experience grief. And a shift in the community that led to horrific violence introduces sobering reflections on the instinct for warfare.
Acknowledgement is made of the ongoing efforts of the Jane Goodall Institute to raise awareness of the decimation of African ape species through hunting and trapping. But Morgen keeps his focus primarily on the primatologist's groundbreaking work in the 1960s — the start of what would become the world's longest continuous study of animals in their natural habitat. Editor Joe Beshenkovsky assembles the wealth of material into a robust narrative, propelled at every step by the majestic sounds of an enveloping score that is classic Glass.
Goodall shows such a refreshing absence of ego that it's a pleasure to hear her speak of her professional achievements, and she discusses her private life with a similar relaxed openness, giving the film a quite intimate feel. She's an inspiring subject, honored here in a truly stirring legacy portrait.
Production company: National Geographic Studios, in association with Public Road Productions
Director-screenwriter: Brett Morgen
Producers: Brett Morgen, Bryan Burk, James Smith, Tony Gerber
Executive producers: Tim Pastore, Jeff Hassler
Director of photography: Ellen Kuras
Archival photography: Hugo van Lawick
Music: Philip Glass
Editor: Joe Beshenkovsky
Animation: Stefan Nadelman
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF Docs)
Sales: Cinetic Media
Rated PG, 91 minutes