When famed paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey sent a 26-year-old Jane Goodall into the wilds of Tanzania's Gombe Park in Africa to study chimpanzees in the wild in the late 1950s, she'd never conducted field research and did not hold a degree—she simply loved animals passionately. And though Goodall's work with chimps is the stuff of legend and the sort of thing everyone just knows about, until a massive archive of footage feared lost for years was rediscovered in 2014, the scope of her time in Gombe was mostly speculative. Not any more.
In Jane, director Brett Morgen (2015's Cobain: Montage of Heck) sifts through over 100 hours of footage taken during Goodall's time in Gombe and, later, the Serengeti. It's an unprecedented and fascinating look into her early days gaining the trust of chimpanzee communities, falling in love with wildlife photographer and cameraman Hugo van Lawick, mothering a son and learning then-unknown information about the habits of chimps. Goodall changed everything.
Morgen wisely stays out of the way during the film, letting Goodall herself narrate and the pictures and film do the talking. Frustrations abound, however, from media-led ridiculousness of the day amounting to "Pretty Girl Does Thing" headlines and the underlying concerns of academic communities who felt her lack of education damaged her credibility. Still, her seat-of-the-pants study is the sort of radical thing that would probably never happen today, and the information she learned in the bush proved anthropologically, zoologically and scientifically invaluable. In the end, it's that she did it at all—never mind so meticulously and persistently—that matters, and Morgen's assertion that our broadened understanding of the natural world had much to do with Goodall's research is spot-on.
The Philip Glass score accentuates highlights from her meager beginnings as bright-eyed newcomer to the establishing of a research center, still in existence, flush with students and scientists. Glass' compositions nudge us toward how we might feel without ever forcing us, though it is worth noting we might not have cried quite so hard without them.
Regardless, to observe the lifelong efforts of a young woman from their earliest inception is inspiring and emotional, and an absolute must-see experience for animal lovers, documentary aficionados and anyone with even the slightest proclivity for living things. At just about 90 minutes, it is captivating throughout and a strong contender for best documentary feature this year.
+Goodall is the ultimate badass
-We could've done with a little less of her son, Grub. Yes, Grub.
Directed by Morgen
With Goodall and van Lawick
Center for Contemporary Arts, NR, 90 min.