Previous to Goodall embarking for Tanzania in 1957, researchers knew almost nothing about chimpanzees in the wild. Her mentor, famed paleontologist Louis Leakey, sent her to Africa not because of her brilliance or education — the then-26-year-old had no scientific training at the time — but because he believed her passion for animals and patience were well-suited to observing chimps in the wild.
Emotions like sympathy, not science, are central to Jane, illustrating how the trait turned out to be Goodall’s greatest asset in illuminating the animals most closely related to humans.
Channeling Doolittle and Tarzan, Goodall became a member of the community of chimps she studied in Gombe, earning their trust, if not their love. “Even as I was, bit by bit, piecing together something of their way of life, so they were getting used to the sight of this strange white ape,” she says.
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Among her most astonishing discoveries was witnessing one of the chimps whom she called David Greybeard using a twig to unearth ants in underground colonies.
The observation proved that other animals besides people used tools, an insight that arguably was among the most humbling for humankind in the 20th century. “DEFINITION OF MAN TO BE CHANGED,” reads a newspaper headline depicted in the film.
It also proved that female scientists could work as effectively as their male counterparts. “Woman Scientist Has Evidence to Support Her Belief,” read another newspaper clip.
Featuring lush landscapes, recent interviews with Goodall, and a musical score by Philip Glass, the film also details the researcher’s personal struggles in the field.
Van Lawick went to Tanzania in 1962 to shoot a National Geographic documentary about Goodall. His appearance upended Goodall’s life.
“I didn’t want anybody coming into my little paradise,” she says, adding that while Van Lawick was unfortunately a smoker and annoying perfectionist, he was handsome.
They married two years later, then moved with their young son, nicknamed Grub, to the Serengeti region of Tanzania where Van Lawick shot a film about lions.
But Goodall felt the call of Gombe and went back as Van Lawick’s work took him elsewhere. “I felt a bit isolated at that time,” she said, foreshadowing the couple’s divorce in 1974.
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Jane’s community of chimps was splitting up, too. When one cohort moved south, the other attacked and killed its members. “I thought they were like us but nicer than us. I had no idea of their brutality that they can show,” she says. “It took me a while to come to terms with that”
The incident led to another penetrating observation. People and chimpanzees shared a tendency for violence. But that was no excuse for humankind’s worst behavior.
“We have a responsibility,” she says, “towards the other lifeforms of our planet whose continued existence is threat by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species.”
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