Widgets Magazine

‘Jane’ provides a scintillating vision into Goodall’s legacy

Dr. Jane Goodall. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

In 1957, Dr. Louis Leakey, a preeminent paleoanthropologist, began to examine chimpanzee behavior in the hopes that it would help him better understand the lifestyle of early man. He asked his 26-year-old secretary, who had no formal scientific training, to go to Africa and collect data for him. The secretary’s name was Jane Goodall, and she would dedicate the rest of her life to studying the chimpanzees of Gombe National Park in Tanzania. Goodall was the first to observe chimpanzees making tools, eating meat and going to war. She detailed the relationship between chimpanzee mothers and children, documented their grooming rituals and described the complex emotions they feel. Just as Goodall has spent much of her career shedding light on the extraordinary qualities of chimpanzees, Brett Morgen’s new documentary about Goodall, “Jane,” gives an insight into her multifaceted life. “Jane” is a stellar introduction to a fascinating woman and her vital research.

In creating his portrait of Goodall, Morgen marries Hugo van Lawick’s images with Philip Glass’s score. Lawick accompanied Goodall to Tanzania in 1962 because the heads of the National Geographic Society did not believe that her observations were accurate. (Ironically, the National Geographic Society is now a major producer of the documentary.) Since his mission was to confirm Goodall’s discoveries, Lawick captured the chimpanzees at a close range. Although many films since the 1960s have shown animals in their natural habitat, Lawick’s images remain stunning. It is astonishing to witness a chimpanzee using a twig to fish for termites or to watch the decidedly human-like interactions between chimpanzee mother and child.  

Philip Glass’s score complements these images and adds to this sense of awe. His music certainly has a very distinctive sound — it lacks melodies but instead consists of cascading patterns of notes. Yet, Glass’s style befits the film, as it suggests the strange, wondrous, majestic nature of Gombe National Park. Throughout the documentary, Goodall discusses her lifelong fascination with the animals who inhabit Gombe. Taken together, Lawick’s footage and Glass’s music inspire in us a similar curiosity about the chimpanzees and their surroundings and elucidate why she has dedicated her life to studying these animals. Who wouldn’t want to spend time exploring this equatorial Eden and its extraordinary enigmas?

Furthermore, Morgen deftly combines Goodall’s career with her personal life and her musings on being a woman in a field dominated by men. While these three topics may seem disparate, Morgen links them together by focusing on Flo, a chimpanzee that Goodall studied for years. As the film progresses, Flo emerges as Goodall’s primate doppelgänger, and indeed, there are striking similarities between the two of them. Soon after Flo mates with another chimpanzee, Goodall falls in love with Lawick and marries him. Both Flo and Goodall give birth to sons around the same time. As Goodall watches Flo raise her son, she struggles to balance her career with her responsibilities as a mother. As the mother of five alpha males, Flo is, in some respects, the most important member of the chimpanzee community. This observation gives Goodall cause to reflect on her position as a prominent woman in the scientific community. With Flo acting as a conduit, Morgen is able to present Goodall’s opinions and the details of her professional and personal life clearly and concisely.

“Jane” is by no means the definitive statement on Goodall’s life. Morgen chooses to focus on the breadth of her work. Thus, while the documentary discusses her work in various locales and her efforts to stop animal cruelty and climate change, it does not fully explore the implications of Goodall’s most notable discoveries. For example, in the 1950s, many scientists defined man as the only animal that could make tools. When Goodall observed the chimpanzees making tools, Morgen mentions that the definition of man had to be revised. I wanted to know more about that particular debate, but I don’t fault Morgen for glossing over it. When dealing with a career as long, as varied, and as important as Goodall’s, it is impossible for a ninety-minute film to thoroughly cover every crucial contribution she has made to science. Indeed, “Jane” proves that sixty years after Dr. Louis Leakey sent his secretary to Africa, the discoveries she made there are as surprising and as significant as ever.
Contact Amir Abou-Jaoude at amir2 ‘at’ stanford.edu.