During a pivotal scene in Brett Morgen’s new documentary about National Geographic Society researcher Jane Goodall and her experimental time with chimpanzees in the wild, the camera patiently observes as one of the chimps finally makes human contact with her and gingerly takes a banana from her outstretched hand. It’s a sweet, breakthrough moment in her studies and one that ultimately shifts our own perspective about the nature of observation.
Up until that point, Jane is a fairly by-the-numbers portrait of this fascinating woman who dared to follow her dream of sleeping under the stars in a faraway adventure. But once she gains acceptance by the family of chimpanzees (and in effect kick-starts the unbelievable research that would define her life for decades to come), Morgen’s documentary does something unique by contemplating Jane’s life against that of the mammals she’s studying. It’s a rare feat for a documentary to work on so many levels, but Jane does just that.
Pieced together from a cache of previously unseen footage, Jane has the vivid look of those 60’s nature documentaries whose edges are a bit frayed and its color is desaturated. As the film observes Jane careening through the thick forest, ever attached to a pair of binoculars that serve as her magnified eye and closest confidant, the images represent a distant, dangerous and otherworldly adventure. Added to the mix is a score by Phillip Glass that (typically) propels the images as if they were spiraling towards a cosmic conflict.
Jane eventually discovers, lives and adapts to a family of chimpanzees where she becomes world famous for her observations. Satisfied to flash a few news clippings and excerpts from radio and TV interviews, Morgen’s film, however, isn’t particularly interested in Jane’s sudden cult of personality. It goes deeper than that.
Part of the story is in the images themselves. Sent by the Geo Society to visually document Jane’s work in the wild was Hugo van Lawick. As described by Jane as intelligent, soft-spoken and, of course, handsome, a relationship blooms between the two. A marriage and son, named Grub, are also the fruit of this real-life adventure.
Never straying completely from its formula of educating about Jane’s life, the second half of the film is where Morgen conflates the ideas of Jane’s existence with that of the chimps. As she enters new phases of her life as wife, mother and renowned anthropologist, the challenges of these three responsibilities becomes evident. And it’s not a paradigm that goes unnoticed by Jane herself through lovingly textured and soothing voice-over. She herself admits that the process of weening her son came from watching one of the mother chimps, all those years, playfully rearing her own offspring. It also becomes evident that the introduction of humans into this previously untouched chimpanzee environment has its own disastrous consequences, including aggressive behavior and a polio epidemic that painfully afflicts some of her most observed chimps.
Compare this with the separation anxiety forced upon Jane when she decides it’s too dangerous for Grub to continue living in the wild with her and the film effectively culminates both tragedies into a heartbreaking exploration of the species.
I mentioned the banana grabbing scene in the opening, but there’s another gasp-worthy moment in Jane. Towards the beginning of her research, Jane observes one of the chimps making a blade out of a piece of overgrowth in order to slide it down a hole and grab bugs for food. Widely recognized as the watershed moment in her studies as the identification of the only other rational, thinking species besides a human to modify something into a tool, it’s a grand moment for Jane and us watching. It’s also a small allegory for taking these countless hours of unseen film and crafting a documentary that provides us with wondrous images, both chimp and human.
Jane opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, November 3 at the Angelika Film Center Plano and Angelika Film Center Dallas.