For most of the 2000s, documentary filmmaker Brett Morgan has found new and unique ways to tell stories that easily could have been just another biography, simply piecing together of specific events. Instead, he’s made interesting use of animation (in the Robert Evans profile The Kid Stays in the Picture or the investigation into the events behind the 1968 Democratic National Convention riots in Chicago 10) or found unconventional angles from which to approach famous musicians (Crossfire Hurricane, Cobain: Montage of Heck).
The angle at which he looks at the early research years of primatologist Jane Goodall for Jane is simply the unbelievable amount of long-lost, never-before-scene footage at Morgan’s disposal to piece together the story of an amateur scientist and a specialty that would carry her through decades.
Much of the footage in question came from Goodall’s late ex-husband, the nature cameraman Hugo van Lawick, who met her shortly after she began her exhausting round of fieldwork in Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania. To watch her stride into the wild, with no experience to speak of, but a patience that is unrivaled in her field must have been the strangest thing for the locals to experience. Even she comments (in narration recorded more recently, but clearly taken from some of her notes at the time) that this 26-year-old tall, elegant, tan, blonde woman strolling into the jungle in 1960 and attempting to get even a glimpse of the local chimpanzee population seemed unlikely to succeed. But through a series of trial-and-error efforts, she eventually could observe and notice patterns in behavior that had simply never been gathered prior.
She experimented with feeding the primates in order to draw them out, which worked for a time until the animals figured out that all the food was at the camp, and they began violent raids to steal food and anything else that wasn’t locked down. The spectacular way this sequence is cut makes these raids seem like they’re straight out of a war movie, with Goodall and her team cowering behind makeshift fencing. Most of the archival footage comes from the 1960s, and by the time Van Lawick arrived, Goodall had established a routine that resulted in groundbreaking footage (commissioned by National Geographic). Without necessarily trying, his footage also captures Goodall at her most relaxed and happy, which sweetly reveals that the two were falling in love.
Combined with Philip Glass’ primal but still lovely score, Jane works as both a remembrance and a precursor to a life to come. When Van Lawick was re-assigned and could no longer stay in Africa, it changed the dynamic of their relationship. They had a child that spent his first few years on earth surrounded by nature, but when he grew old enough to attend school, things were forced to change again.
We see Goodall assemble a team of student researchers to assist her, with varying degrees of success. The film documents the beginning of a career and activism campaign that continues to this day (Goodall is now 83). Morgan has pieced together a record of events that could have easily have failed before they even really get going. But Goodall’s relentless fortitude and belief that she could befriend these apes almost seems to make it happen.
Jane is easily one of the finest documentaries of the year and should be a major contender come awards season.
The film opens today at the ArcLight Chicago.