Earth & Conservation

Documentary Film Explores the Legacy of Pioneering Chimp Researcher Jane Goodall

<em>Jane </em>includes never-before-seen footage of Goodall studying wild chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 1960s, which changed our&nbsp;understanding of primates — and humans.

At the beginning of Jane, a film about pioneering British chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, documentary filmmaker Brett Morgen asks his subject about her dreams as a child.

“I was typically a man and went on adventures,” recalls Goodall. “Probably because at the time I wanted to do things which men did and women didn’t — you know, like going to Africa, living with animals.”

Later, reading from her 1999 book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, Goodall expands on that theme. “I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could, to be like Dr. Doolittle,” she says. “I wanted to move among them without fear, like Tarzan.”

Partnering with National Geographic, Morgen used 100 hours of never-before-seen footage of Goodall in Gombe National Park in Tanzania in the 1960s to produce Jane, which was released Oct. 20. Shot by her ex-husband, Hugo van Lawick, the footage was believed lost until it was found in 2014.

The result is a time capsule of science that illustrates how far science — and especially female scientists — have come in the last 60 years.

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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