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It would have been easy for director Brett Morgen to make a romance out of his National Geographic documentary Jane, which centers on pioneering primate scholar Jane Goodall. Most of the footage is culled from 134 hours of film shot by Goodall’s ex-husband Hugo van Lawick in the 1960s — and discovered in a vault five decades later. Set to a soaring score by Philip Glass, the film shows the couple in their youth, when they met at Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania, fell in love and married (van Lawick died in 2002).
But even more powerful than their romance was their dedication to their work. Goodall was 23 when she met with eminent paleontologist Louis Leakey and landed the job that would put her on the path to becoming the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees.
Goodall, 83, spoke with THR about her past use of controversial feeding stations, confronting sexism and the scourge of science denial.
What was it like seeing yourself and Hugo 50 years ago?
It was very moving, actually, because it took me back in a way none of the other documentaries have. And there are those chimpanzees I knew so well, my old friends.
Much of the publicity at the time was centered on your youth and you being female. Have things changed?
Being a woman helped me, I think. Louis Leakey believed that women would be better observers than men, had more patience. That’s why he chose not just me, but Dian Fossey and Birute Galdikas. Has it changed now? Of course. I’d say way over half of people now out in the field studying animals are women. I think Dian, Birute and I did pave the way.
Did being female make a difference in the wilderness?
When I arrived out there, Africans — the men — were a little bit challenged and hostile toward white men, for very good reason. But a white woman on her own, that was something they wanted to nurture. I got more help from them than had I been a male.
You came under criticism for some of your methods, such as setting up artificial feeding stations.
We would never do it now. There was absolutely no knowledge back then that chimpanzees could catch human infectious diseases. For me, to actually have them coming into my camp, I could really get to know them. If that hadn’t happened, National Geographic would not have sent Hugo as a photographer, because he wouldn’t have been able to go out to film them in the forest. They are dark, dark creatures, dark fur, dark forest, he wouldn’t have gotten any footage and probably the study would have ended. So I’m not sorry.
What was it like for you when David Graybeard first picked up that blade of grass and used it as a tool?
It didn’t actually surprise me that chimpanzees could use a tool. But what I knew was that science didn’t believe it was possible and we were defined as man the toolmakers. In fact it was so exciting that I had to wait and see it again before I told Leakey in a telegram.
Are you surprised to find there are still science deniers?
I’m more shocked than surprised. They’re denying the scientific observations of thousands of scientists around the world. How do I get through to them? Sometimes if you get the feeling of a person and you find out who he is, you can tell a story that gets into the heart so that he might take away some different thoughts.
A version of this story first appeared in a November standalone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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