Film explores the wild with Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall captivates in Brett Morgen’s newest film, Jane. Morgen resurrects over 100 hours of footage from the National Geographic archives, seamlessly stitching together documentary footage and present-day interviews with a reticent Goodall who reflects on the fieldwork that would catapult her into fame.

At the age of 26, Goodall, a U.K. native, was working in Kenya as a secretary under Louis Leakey. Leakey was searching for evidence to bolster the theory of evolution, but feared that sending someone with formal training out to do fieldwork would bias any of the data collected. Sending out someone who believed in a common ancestry with primates, for example, would have come off as self-serving, while backing the opposite view would have proved defeating – thereby biasing the results in either direction. Armed with little more than a fascination for animals, notepad, rain gear and her mother in tow, Goodall found herself studying chimpanzees in a coastal region near Gombe in Tanzania.

Goodall’s scientific primer extends little beyond a crash-course in primate behavior and anatomy. In spite of this, she navigates the terrain well – maneuvering past poisonous snakes and adapting to the challenges being allowed inside the chimp community poses. As we fast forward to one of the interview segments, Goodall admits to bouts of frustration. The chimps, sensing an interloper, restricted her early observations to what could be seen through a pair of binoculars. “In the back of my mind,” Goodall said, “I knew I had to find something interesting before the funding ran out.” Her patience was soon rewarded as members of the Gombe chimp community gradually warmed up to her. To distinguish between the chimps and accurately log them in her notes, she gave them names based off of salient features. For example, Flo, whom she readily recognized by her “bulbous nose and ragged ears,” and David Greybeard, with his trademark “single, rather distinctive grey hair on his chin.” Greybeard seemed the least wary of Goodall and led her to many of their sanctuaries.

Around the same time, National Geographic, one of the sponsors of Leakey’s research, sent wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick out to document Goodall’s findings. Shortly after being granted insider status, Goodall could more closely observe feeding behaviors. Repeatedly, the chimpanzees would uproot leafy twigs and strip them off the vegetation before plunging them into a nearby termite mound. Prevailing scientific theories at the time asserted that humans were the only primates capable of rational thought and what resembled object modification. In fact, strict definitions at the time singled out man as “the toolmaker.” Goodall’s discovery was captured on film by van Lawick. Upon seeing the photographs of these termite-extraction tools, an awestruck Leakey said, “We must now redefine man, redefine tool or accept chimpanzees as human!”

Although this finding secures them more funding and allows them to extend the study indefinitely, it appears to stir only backlash in the male-dominated scientific community. Many voices attempted publicly to discredit Goodall, arguing that her research could not be taken seriously since she had no formal training, or dismissing her as the “National Geographic cover girl.” Goodall, however, mainly took the slights in stride; she recounted that any publicity was good for drawing in more sources of money.

During this time, Goodall and van Lawick married, and their son Grub spent the first six years of his life in Africa. Both had demanding jobs, and van Lawick’s reassignment to the Serengeti put a strain on their marriage. In the wake of an amicable split, Goodall continued treading new ethological ground. Flo, one of the more readily recognizable female chimps, had a son named Flint and the mother-son dynamic provided Goodall with further insight into the familial relationships of chimpanzees. From this, and the rest of her studies, Goodall was able to glean that “it isn’t only human beings who have personality, who are capable of rational thought … emotions like joy and sorrow.” Goodall also bore witness to a polio outbreak amongst the chimps, and the administration of vaccines in hopes of mitigating the strain for subsequent generations.

Jane readily offers glimpses into the life of one of biology’s most prominent figures. Goodall currently has postdoctoral and research students alike completing field work at Gombe, making it one of the longest continual observational studies. Give a person a notepad, rain poncho and field guide to poisonous snakes and she might just unearth an ethological goldmine.

‘Jane’ follows the life of primatologist Jane Goodall, whose work with chimps catapulted her into fame. Photo courtesy of National Geographic.