Serious Monkey Business

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A Commentary Review of Brett Morgen’s documentary film, “Jane”
[Mountain Shadow's selection for December, 2017]

 Review by John Bennison, Mountain Shadow Director

“At the time I wanted to do things which men did and women didn’t. Going to Africa, living with animals was all I ever thought about.” … Later: “People said my fame was due to my legs. It was so stupid — it didn’t bother me. It was really very useful because by this time I was needing to raise money myself, so I made use of it.” - Jane Goodall


Nearly sixty years ago, words like “liberated” -- let alone “empowered” -- were terms hardly associated with a woman’s role in Western society.  Now, in an era when TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year” are a group of women known as “The Silence Breakers,” it’s almost quaint to recall the scientific community’s surprise when a young British secretary with no formal training in their field made the cover of The National Geographic magazine in 1965.

Nowadays, watching the trove of rediscovered 16mm film footage from the National Geographic archives that’s showcased in Brett Morgen’s documentary, JANE, is a little like watching home movies from your grandmother’s early years in Africa. Jane Goodall was 26 years old when she made her solo journey to Tanzania’s Gombe wilderness in 1960; in order to undertake the study chimpanzee behavior by living intimately among them. Now 83 years old, Jane Goodall simply appears to be an older version of her earlier self.

Where she was once a sprightly, adventuresome young woman – filled with a passionate quest, and a disarming naiveté to match – she now speaks with the wisdom of a seasoned conservation warrior.  Her life-long commitment to the advancement of her field of research has led to a modern understanding of our own human nature.  How, for example, our human make-up and behavior has – in some very fundamental ways --  remained nearly indistinguishable from our primitive ancestors; including our loves and hates, joys and sorrows, afflictions, heartache, and the capacity for cruelty and violence against our own kind.

In 1957, renowned scientist, Richard Leakey, had the good sense to reason that new discoveries can sometimes best be achieved when unfettered by pre-established theoretical bias. So he sent his secretary to fetch some data!

Goodall first discovered that chimps were highly intelligent, social creatures that use tools to gather food. She was subsequently shaken, however, when her beloved chimpanzees succumbed to an outbreak of polio (believed to have been caused by human contact) and engaged in a brutal conflict amongst themselves. Even in a jungle paradise it seems, life -- as we know it -- is life. The natural cycle of all living things, however, was something she would later come to appreciate and reflect upon in what she would later call her “spiritual memoir.”



But further, the film JANE chronicles a unique kind of love story. When Dutch filmmaker Hugo van Lawick is sent to document Jane’s work in 1964, the filmmaker and researcher first flirt with the only other eligible mate around, thefall in love, marry and have a child; only to ultimately discover each is more wedded to their work than each other.  It is not an unhappy ending, however, as the filmmaker for JANE, Brett Morgen explains it,

“The amazing thing is that you’re really watching Hugo fall in love with Jane on camera. That’s a rarity. You see it in classic couplings between a director and an actress, like von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich or Orson Welles and Rita Hayworth. In the case of Hugo and Jane, that relationship breaks the fourth wall. Going through the footage, we identified every time Jane looked directly at the camera, reacting to Hugo, so we could build that into a montage. That was integral to the story. The film is very much a love story, except the love is not between man and woman.”
Morgen goes on,

“The love is between a woman and her work and a man and his work. Most people have this romantic idea that the most important relationship in life is with your partner, your lover, your spouse, but for a lot of driven people, their primary relationship is
with their work. I started to see that Jane and Hugo’s ultimate breakup was not a tragedy because they both pursued their passions.”

The film’s story takes the viewer up to 1991, when Goodall forms the Roots & Shoots youth outreach and action program; and before she is fully recognized as one of the world’s foremost wildlife advocates through her books, lectures and environmental protection efforts advanced by the Jane Goodall Institute.

In her 1999, NYTimes bestselling autobiography, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, Goodall retierates a question often posed to her:

“People ask how I can be so optimistic in the face of so much environmental destruction and human suffering; in the face of overpopulation and overconsumption, pollution, deforestation, desertification, poverty, famine, cruelty, hatred, greed, violence and war. Does she really believe what she says? They seem to be wondering. What is the secret ingredient for her optimism, her hope?”

At a more recent global conference, she offered an updated answer to her unwavering response, emphatically listing five reasons for hope:

1. Young people that are doing amazing things for the environment all over the world.
2. The capacity of the human brain.
3. The resiliency of nature.
4. The capacity now for social media to organize global movements. And finally,
5. The indomitable human spirit; and those people who tackle the impossible, who don’t give up, and who inspire others.

Goodall’s “spiritual journey” fosters awareness. Awareness that hope is essential to action. Hope, she believes, is founded not in optimism so much as in a fundamental understanding of what matters most.


“It was in the forest that I
found a peace that passeth
all understanding.” - Goodall