Jane (2017) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A vivid, riveting presentation of Jane Goodall’s life and work

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Documentary film “Jane”, which was recently shown at the EBS International Documentary Film Festival during last week, gave me an experience both enlightening and enthralling. While I certainly came to learn a lot more about the life and work of Dr. Jane Goodall, I was also amazed and mesmerized by many vivid, riveting moments presented in this very special documentary, and I eventually came to appreciate more of her significant academic achievement as admiring her considerable spirit and dedication.

Mainly alternating between Goodall’s interview clips and archival footage clips, the documentary gives us a close, intimate look into her life and work. When she was sent to Gombe, Tanzania by her boss Dr. Louis Leakey in 1957, Goodall was merely a secretary working for him, but he saw something special inside her. Although she had no college degree or formal training experience, she was a young, open-mind woman with passion for knowledge and enormous patience, and, as she tells us at one point, she also had been a lot interested in nature and animals since she was very young.

After coming to Gombe along with her mother who was always supportive of her daughter’s ambition, Goodall soon embarked on studying the chimpanzees inhabiting in the forest area of Gombe, but she came to face a number of obstacles. At that time, there had not been any notable scientific research on the behaviors of chimpanzees or any other primate species, and the chimpanzees usually ran away whenever she approached to them for closer observation. She managed to make a record on their behaviors as watching them from the distance, but that was not enough at all, and she saw that she needed to go further for her study. Frequently being around their habitat, she patiently waited, and there eventually came a breakthrough point some time later. As recognizing that she was no threat to them, the chimpanzees slowly came to accept her presence, and she earned their trust as providing them some food.

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While studying their behaviors as closely as she wanted, Goodall discovered many interesting facts about them, and one of these facts was quite a sensation to not only the academia but also the human society. She observed several chimpanzees using a branch for eating ants, and this observation of hers led to a significant paradigm shift in primatology. Around that time, many people thought only human beings are capable of using tools, but Goodall’s observation proved it totally wrong, and that was accordingly followed by more discussion on what exactly makes human beings different from animals.

Meanwhile, her life became a little more complicated than before. As funded by the National Geographic, she came to be accompanied with a wildlife photographer to record her study, and that photographer was her first husband Hugo van Lawick. As closely working together for a while, they came to fall in love with each other, and they eventually got married in 1964.

Even after their son was born, Goodall continued to study the chimpanzees in Gombe, and the documentary makes an interesting point on how she learned a lot about motherhood through her observation of the close bond between a certain female chimpanzee and its children. Like that chimpanzee, Goodall did as much as she could do for raising her son well, and you may be amused to learn that her son did not like chimpanzees much in contrast to his mother.

And she kept pursuing her academic passion as before. When her relationship with her husband became considerably estranged as they focused more on their respective careers, she became conflicted for a while, but her mother advised her not to give up anything just for maintaining her marriage, and she eventually divorced in 1974.

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In the meantime, there came a couple of devastating changes in Gombe. At one point, many chimpanzees in Gombe suffered from polio, and Goodall tells us a heartbreaking moment when one of those unfortunate chimpanzees had to be euthanized for a humane reason. Not long after that polio epidemic, the chimpanzee community in Gombe was shaken by a sudden internal conflict, and Goodall and her researchers witnessed the dark, brutal side of animal nature. Nevertheless, she did not stop her research at all, and, as many of you know, she is still working even at present.

All those memorable moments in the documentary are palpably presented via a bunch of amazing archival footage clips edited from a hundred hours of never-before-seen footage shot by van Lawick, and some of them are simply spellbinding to say the least. While it is surely awesome to get a close glimpse into the tentative interactions between Goodall and her animal subjects, I was also awed by small but precious moments showing other animals and plants, and Philip Glass’ propulsive minimalist score adds an extra narrative force to what is being presented on the screen. I must point out that his score feels a bit too redundant at first, but then its detached attitude fits perfectly to the distant but reflective narrative approach of the documentary, and it is definitely one of his best film scores.

“Jane” is directed by Brett Morgan, who was Oscar-nominated for “On the Ropes” (1999) and then made several acclaimed documentary films such as “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck” (2015). While quite informative and entertaining as required, the documentary also works as a compelling human portrayal of one passionate researcher, and it is a shame that it was not Oscar-nominated early in this year (it was included in the short list for Best Documentary Oscar, though). This is indeed a terrific piece of work, and I urge you to watch it as soon as possible if you have not seen it yet.

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