Movie Review: Jane (2017) #atozchallenge

This is my entry for “J” in the Blogging A to Z Challenge. Throughout April I will be watching and reviewing a documentary movie from A to Z.  This is the first J documentary I’ve reviewed.

Title: Jane
Release Date: October 20, 2017
Director: Brett Morgen
Production Company: National Geographic Studios

If there’s a reason that I am a person who likes documentaries it probably begins with my childhood when I loved “nature films.”  And the best nature films of that era were National Geographic Specials.  And the most memorable National Geographic Special debuted in 1984: “Among the Wild Chimpanzees.”  I watched it many times and learned to love and admire  the naturalist Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees she introduced, David Greybeard, Flo, Fifi, Flint, Goliath, and many others.

Jane is made using over 100 hours of film shot by Hugo van Lawick in the early 1960s during the period when Goodall was first accepted into the Kasakela chimpanzee community and discovered that chimpanzees used tools, ate meat, and carried out brutal violence on one another. The film is remarkable as we see Jane Goodall, looking younger than I’ve ever seen her in sharp, brilliant colors that look like they were shot yesterday. Goodall herself narrates the film in a series of interviews, scenes of her in the present day occasionally intercut with the archival footage.  What’s remarkable about this film is that it has a retrospective view of Goodall as an older person, yet the use of the archival film allows the story to unfold the process of discovery as if it were just happening.

That the 1960s footage focuses on Goodall as much as the chimpanzees is not surprising when one learns that Goodall and von Lawick fall in love and marry.  Goodall’s personal life is a key part of this documentary, with their initially joyful marriage, the birth of their son Grub and raising him at Gombe, and the strain on the marriage when neither Goodall nor von Lawick wish to give up their work to be together, thus ending in divorce.  Goodall’s growth and acceptance in the scientific community that discriminated against her as a woman, and a young woman with no higher education credentials at that, is also explored.

As a lover of all things Jane Goodall and chimpanzees, I’m the target audience for this documentary.  But I still think I’m objective enough to state that this is a remarkable documentary film that will educated and delight wide audiences.

What Can One Learn From Watching This Documentary:

In an odd way this is kind of like a “reboot” or “prequel” that fills in the details before other documentaries about Jane Goodall and the chimpanzees of Gombe.  It also shows how her professional and personal lives were intertwined.

If You Like This You Might Also Want To …:

In addition to digging up those old National Geographic Specials, I recommend reading Jane Goodall’s books, including Through a Window and Reason for Hope. You can also read the biography of Goodall by Dale Peterson.

Source: I watched this on demand through Xfinity cable.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man by Dale Peterson

In my childhood, I enjoyed National Geographic specials about a slight English woman who would sit in the Tanzanian forest by the Gombe River and observe chimpanzees.  In college I read one of her books, Through a Window: My Thirty Years With the Chimpanzees of Gombe and became even more deeply enamored with the woman and her works.  When Jane Goodall received an honorary degree from the College of William & Mary on Charter Day in 1993, my roommate Hal joked that they would need security to keep me from swooping in from the rafters and abducting her.  Thus it was natural for me to read the comprehensive biography Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man (2006) by Dale Peterson.

Peterson relies on a wealth of source material including interviews with Goodall, her family, colleagues and researchers; a huge volume of Goodall’s correspondence; and Goodall’s voluminous notes and published writings.  From early childhood, Jane Goodall seemed to be fated to her future work by observing farm animals, starting science clubs with her friends, and studying the behavior of her many family pets.  At times, the detail of Goodall’s childhood seems a bit too much.  I swear there’s an entire chapter that just lists the names of young men who fancied the teenage Jane.

The strength of this biography is the portion of Jane’s life from the late-1950’s to the mid-1970’s.  Starting with her affiliation with Louis Leakey anthropological & archaeological works in Africa, Jane set off on a new bold path with her quiet observation of the chimpanzees of Gombe, recognizing the chimps as individuals, and building up a detailed record of behavior over time. Her methods were considered unscientific by some, yet at the same time she recieved pressure from her sponsors at National Geographic to make her writing less scientific (National Geographic doesn’t come off well in this book due to a often tempestuous relationship with Goodall and the Gombe Stream reserve.)  Goodall’s family life is fascinating as well, including her mother Vanne and sister Judy who both accompanied Jane to Gombe at times, her two husbands – photographer Hugo and Tanzanian politician Derek, and son Grub who grew up at the research station.  Most of the biography is related in a strict chronological manner although there are some artistic details such as a chapter where the regime changes among Gombe’s alpha male chimpanzees are intertwined with the changes of administration from National Geographic support to a more independent Jane Goodall Institute.

For the excess of detail in the early part of the book, the last portion of the book from the mid-1970’s to the present feels rushed.  The death of Goodall’s second husband seems to be just a few paragraphs tacked onto a chapter about Idi Amin’s invasion of Tanzania and inexplicably long passages about the family dogs.  Thirty years of Goodall’s life – during a period when she became a traveling activist for both wild and captive chimpanzees – seems to be nothing more than a list of awards, appearances, and accomplishments.  I like this book because I love Jane Goodall for her remarkable accomplishments as a scientist, teacher and educator, but Peterson’s writing can be plodding and uneven at times.  I’ve added Goodall’s own book Reason For Hope; A Spiritual Journey to my reading list for 2009 to learn even more.

In the meantime, check out The Jane Goodall Institute website for lots of neat resources.

Jane Goodall : the woman who redefined man by Dale Peterson.
Publisher: Boston : Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.