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Documentary on Jane Goodall reveals a rarely seen side of the primate expert

Brett Morgen’s ‘Jane’ is a far more intimate portrait of the primatologist than any so far attempted.

Jane Goodall, whose work with chimpanzees in Africa revolutionised our understanding of the primate, has been the subject of many documentaries, including a 1965 one narrated by Orson Welles. Yet, when Brett Morgen chanced upon new footage of the scientist working in the Gombe reserve in Tanzania, he decided to try his hand at a fresh portrayal. Jane, the result, is a far more intimate portrait of the primatologist than any so far attempted.

Goodall, who first went to Africa in 1960 when she was sent there by Louis Leakey, the Kenyan paleontologist, had little to recommend her for the task except her passion. She had not attended college but had dreamed since childhood of spending her life around animals. It is her pluck that may have convinced Leakey to depute this young woman to undertake a most ambitious project: to study whether chimp behaviour offered clues into early hominids.

Goodall spent the first two years of her stay in Gombe acclimatising herself and familiarising the chimps to her constant presence. The National Geographic documentary begins with lush vistas of the reserve, as Goodall, her diary to hand, goes deeper into the forest, dodging snakes and other animals while maintaining a steady focus on her subject. Her mother went with her and, with the help of locals, the duo erected a makeshift tent that grew into a full-fledged research centre, one that operates to this day.

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Jane.

These early scenes, we learn, are actually from 1962 onwards, and were shot by Hugo van Lawick, the Dutch photographer sent by Leakey to document Goodall’s work. In spite of the time elapsed, the footage is in surprisingly good condition, and Morgen deftly chooses the bits that accentuate a narrative push. This makes eminent sense, given that Lawick and Goodall ultimately married and had a son, Hugo Eric Louis, whom they raised in Africa till he was six years old.

Jane switches between shots of Goodall and the team she subsequently built, and an interview that the scientist gave to the director. While she discusses her work – for instance, her grief when polio struck the chimps in 1966 – the focus is on the personal. This emerges not only from Morgen’s deliberate slant, but is built into the film’s fabric. When we watch Goodall, we are really watching her through Lawick’s eyes, and a sense of snooping into a private love affair is never far from the surface.

This feeling is intensified when their son makes an entry. Goodall has a substantive discussion about the risks of raising a child among wild animals, but again, the larger import is of a young family having the time of their life. In one scene, Lawick captures Goodall watching Hugo swim into the Tanganyika lake. Close to her sits a chimp watching its own little one do the same. The juxtaposition is striking, even for a film about Goodall, because it so delicately merges the personal and the professional.

There are some themes that Jane entirely omits, such as the presence of a white woman whose courage to venture fearlessly into the African wild was celebrated in the West, a theme that does not sound so rosy when considered from the perspective of the natives. Tanzania was a British protectorate at the time, and the question of the locals’ consent to Goodall’s work is never broached.

Goodall ultimately earned her PhD from Cambridge, where the title of her thesis was “Behaviour of free-living chimpanzees”. A lifelong advocate for the protection of animal habitats, she remains an active speaker and campaigner. Jane, however, introduces us to something that goes beyond this public knowledge. It is the remarkable story of how this pioneer built not just a career but a life in the heart of wilderness.

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