Documentary Review: ‘Jane’ Looks At The Early Days Of Jane Goodall

Review by Jacquelin Hipes

The numerous accomplishments of primatologist Jane Goodall have been extensively covered before. What distinguishes the new National Geographic documentary Jane is the rediscovery of over 100 hours of video footage from her first research excursion to the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960. Supplemented by modern-day interviews with Goodall, we learn about discoveries both scientific and personal, gaining perspective on the early career of a woman whose mere presence in the field was revolutionary.

When Jane Goodall first traveled to Africa, working under funding obtained by Louis Leakey to observe chimpanzees, she had no formal scientific training at the university level. An animal lover all her life, Jane’s objective was to gain acceptance by the little-studied primates in the hopes that their behavior might provide clues about our own early ancestors. Her lack of training meant that certain prejudices of the time—ideas that only humans had “minds” or could fashion tools—would not influence the research. While some of her methods were unorthodox (naming each individual, rather than assigning impartial numbers, for example) Goodall’s early discoveries on chimp behavior cemented a decades-long career and her reputation as one of the foremost authorities on chimpanzees.

Admirers of Dr. Goodall will likely find little in the way of new information in Jane, although that isn’t to say the documentary is any less of a treasure. The footage shot by Hugo van Lawick, regarded as one of the finest nature photographers and Jane’s husband of ten years, is breathtaking. Van Lawick died in 2002 yet his presence can be felt in every frame. Although much of the footage comes from his early career one gets the sense it comes a developing artist and naturalist in equal measure, as he knows not only what to capture but how best to film it as well. A fanciful soundtrack by Philip Glass, with his characteristic ebbs and flows, conveys the child-like wonder and glee Goodall often describes when spending time at Gombe.

Seamlessly interwoven with anecdotes about her research is the story of how Jane and Hugo fell in love, ultimately having a son together who spent much of his early life on assignment with his parents in Africa. To call it a non-traditional upbringing would be a massive understatement, and to hear Jane explain how her studies deepened her feelings on motherhood, which in turn influenced her understanding of the chimpanzees at Gombe, is quite touching.

Given only cursory mentions when compared to her professional accomplishments and personal life, some details surrounding Jane’s work and its reception should earn some rueful chuckles. Despite being twenty-six for the first Gombe expedition, Jane was required to take a chaperone with her into the camp (she chose her mother). Much of the press coverage also embellished beyond the facts in ways one doubts her male counterparts encountered; frequently referred to as a “girl” or “blond”, Jane oftentimes had to read through descriptions of her trim figure before articles addressed any scientific results. (Taking it all in good humor, Jane says she didn’t mind the attention, since it helped ensure continued funding!)

In an old interview, a reporter asks Jane how long she’ll be working with chimpanzees. “I would say, at a rough guess, until I die,” replied Jane. “But I can’t tell you how many years that will be.” She’s already dedicated more than 55 years to chimpanzees, Africa, and nature conservation, proving an inspiration to generations of young girls and boys. Jane is a lovely testament to all that Dr. Goodall has accomplished and what she still hopes to achieve.

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