Jane Goodall is an exceptional figure in many ways. Starting with no formal training and using controversial methods, she made astonishing breakthroughs in understanding the social behavior of chimpanzees and thus understanding ourselves. She managed to become an extremely rare species: a scientist who was also a media darling. And, after dedicating many years of her life to her research (at significant personal sacrifice), she left it behind to become a global spokesperson for sustainable development and conservation.
How did that happen? That’s the subject of a new National Geographic documentary Jane. The movie is primarily based on recently rediscovered footage filmed by noted wildlife filmmaker Hugo van Lawick, who was assigned by National Geographic to film Goodall’s field work. van Lawick was there to capture a key transition in Goodall’s research and drove one in her personal life: the two would end up marrying and having a son.
While it was a pivotal time and the original footage is stunning, it provides a limited window into Goodall’s history. Other pivotal events pass by in a flash or are skipped entirely. Whether that bothers you is probably a key determinant of how much you’ll enjoy Jane.
Becoming a scientist
Goodall’s career in research was a product of her childhood dream of living in Africa. That brought her to Kenya, where she applied for a job as a secretary for famed paleontologist Louis Leakey. But Leakey actually had other plans. His study of fossils was helping provide the outlines of our species’ evolution. But to understand our behavior, we’d have to study our close living relatives—and Leakey didn’t want it to be someone who was already biased by current academic thought. So he offered the job to Goodall, who jumped at the opportunity.
National Geographic funding Goodall’s work and hired van Lawick to film it. He was there to capture Goodall’s repeated failures, as chimps fled whenever she got close. But he also captured footage as chimps started to treat the field camp as a source of food, habituating themselves to a human presence. Goodall encouraged them by putting up feeding stations and became attached enough to her subjects to give them names and recognize their personalities.
All of this was controversial. Goodall is right that she probably wouldn’t have gotten close enough to understand the chimps’ social dynamics without intervening. But her intervention undoubtedly changed their social dynamics. Goodall also argues that it’s silly not to acknowledge that animals have personalities, which is true. But that can also be a problem for researchers, who can bias their data gathering if they don’t treat animals as abstract subjects. This is all told from Goodall’s perspective, though, so the film provides a bit of a one-sided view.
Throughout, there are hints that Goodall, hired specifically because she was an amateur, upped her scientific game. Scenes are intercut with detailed tracings of the chimps’ movement through their habitat and extensive tabulations of individual behaviors—solid raw scientific data. We asked Goodall how this happened, and she credited it to her time getting a PhD at Cambridge, something the film doesn’t ever mention.
Becoming a mom
For van Lawick, Goodall wasn’t only a subject. Over time, they fell in love, eventually got married, and had a son. All of this, seemingly, was integrated into their work—filming and research—with minor interruptions. But, eventually, National Geographic decided it had all the film that it needed. To continue the work that he loved, van Lawick would have to move elsewhere. van Lawick was a real talent, as the film makes clear. While Jane lacks the incredible crispness of modern high-definition nature films, van Lawick’s footage is warm and rich with color, with some amazing lighting and shot composition.
So it’s not a shock to find out that he went with his career and moved to the Serengeti. Goodall stayed with her career, as well, bringing the marriage to a close. Their son, meanwhile, was sent back to the UK for his education.
With no more of van Lawick’s original footage to work with, the years start to fly by. And seemingly suddenly, after having given up her family to continue her research, Goodall decides to drop her research to become a global advocate for conservation. For such an intelligent individual, there was clearly a lot behind this decision. But the audience is left to guess at it.
So Jane isn’t a complete biopic; instead, it captures the period of time that Goodall and van Lawick shared at her research station. But it does happen to be an incredibly pivotal period in her research there, which means it was a critical time for our understanding of chimp behavior and thus our own evolutionary legacy. The fact that van Lawick was there to capture Goodall’s discoveries was a huge bit of luck. The fact that Goodall fell in love with him during this time, rather than being a distraction, provides a rare glimpse of a scientist as a complete person.
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