Film Review: JaneChimpanzee expert Jane Goodall reflects on her career in a documentary that restores unique archival footage.
When she traveled to Tanzania in 1960, 27-year old Jane Goodall lacked the academic training and field experience to study chimpanzees. That didn't stop her from spending months to establish relationships with a remote community of chimps.
Working largely by herself, Goodall revolutionized the scientific community's understanding of chimpanzees, and in fact animals in general. Since then she has become an admired spokesperson for chimpanzees, crisscrossing the world to participate in conferences and workshops.
Jane recounts her career from secretary to world figure through photographs and family movies. Writer-director Brett Morgen also uses Goodall's present-day recollections to explain and amplify what she accomplished.
At the heart of Jane is the work of Dutch cinematographer Hugo van Lawick. Assigned by National Geographic to cover Goodall in 1964, van Lawick shot over 100 hours of 16mm color film stock, edited into the 1965 National Geographic documentary Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees.
Morgen and his crew returned to the original footage, archived in no particular order and almost completely silent. Working with editor Joe Beshenkovsky, Morgen put together a chronological version of Goodall's story, then essentially had Goodall narrate it. Helping to tie the visuals and narration together is a score by Philip Glass.
The end result is a tightly controlled portrait of Goodall, one that mentions but does not dwell on some of the controversial aspects of her career. Goodall's relationships with van Lawick, whom she married in 1965 and divorced in 1974, and with their son Grub, receive relatively limited attention. There are guarded accounts of a polio epidemic that swept through the chimp community, and of waves of chimp aggression that left many casualties.
Goodall's attempts to anthropomorphize the chimps—how they experience emotions like jealousy and altruism, for example—may put off some viewers. So will her willingness to exploit her looks, aided by van Lawick's extraordinary camerawork.
Van Lawick went on to shoot truly remarkable footage of the Serengeti Plains, some of which is included here. His work with Goodall and with the chimps is on an equal level of artistry. His compositions and exposures are exemplary, especially considering the conditions under which he worked. More than that, van Lawick captured the mystery, beauty and dignity surrounding chimpanzees.
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