Sometimes a new film project just ends up at your front door. At least that is what happened to Brett Morgen. One day he got sent over 100 hours of footage from National Geographic. His job was to take the footage and make it a compelling two-hour documentary. While Morgen’s past would dictate that he is only interested in the stories of rock stars, like his previous film, Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, his response is simply “Jane Goodall is the biggest rock star of all.”
The footage he received was of Goodall’s adventures in Gombe, Tanzania, and was thought to be lost for more than 50 years. It was comprised of 16mm film that was shot by Goodall’s eventual husband, Hugo van Lawick. Although Van Lawick wasn’t there in the first days — he eventually joined the expedition when it was discovered that the chimpanzees’ Goodall was studying developed tools for hunting — but National Geographic hired him to record Goodall’s exploits.
The footage Van Lawick captured of Goodall and her chimps is nothing short of extraordinary. Morgen would speak about how pristine the footage was saying that none of it was underexposed or blurry, Van Lawick was truly one of the best nature photographers of all time. But this story isn’t his story, as much as it is the story of Jane.
Before her expedition, Jane was always passionate about working with animals. Through some advice, she was connected with Louis Leakey, who was a notable Kenyan archaeologist and paleontologist. He was interested in the connection between great apes and the behavior of early man. He proposed that Goodall work for him as a secretary and that she would go to Gombe and study chimpanzees. While there was no footage for those first two years, Morgen edits the material he has to recreate those early days. It is fascinating to see how close Jane could get to these animals. It’s as if she had no fear for her own safety.
The film goes into great detail about Jane’s adventures. Not only with the chimps and getting closer to them every day, but also of her romance with Van Lawick and her constant battle for funding for her project. There are certain moments when some of her actions might be questioned, but everything she did was necessary in order to keep the study alive. The documentary is filled out with Goodall’s own words as a lengthy interview she gave to Morgen is broken up throughout the film. It is amazing how much the information on screen is able to sync with Goodall’s own depiction of the advents.
Even with all those pieces in place, Jane soars with a complimentary soundtrack from famed composer Philip Glass. Jane tells an essential story about the exploits and life of Jane Goodall, how a woman was able to make the discovery of our species and its similarities to that of chimpanzees. Also for her continued contributions toward wildlife conservation and youth education. Jane Goodall might not be a rock star in the traditional sense, but her accomplishments sure speak loudly. Morgen has created a wonderful tribute to the life and work of an extraordinary woman.