'Jane': In the Heart of Africa

(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Brett Morgen
Featuring: Dr. Jane Goodall
What separates humans from animals? Language? Social order? Consciousness? The capacity for love?

Without getting inside the head of one’s endlessly curious kitten or obedient dog, it’s hard to answer this question with absolute certainty. However, after watching Brett Morgen’s extraordinary documentary Jane, I’m inclined to say the latter.

Jane is a love story for the ages. It’s Out of Africa without the Hollywood scale (or the awkward colonial factor), but what Sydney Pollack’s sweeping romantic epic finds in the love story between Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, Brett Morgen’s documentary finds in the beautiful tale of Dr. Jane Goodall and her husband, the late filmmaker Hugo van Lawick. Jane intimately observes the connections between species in the animal kingdom and the minute yet magical elements that set us apart from our non-human peers.

Morgen draws upon over 100 hours of hours of previously unseen 16mm footage of Goodall performing her ground-breaking research on chimpanzees in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. The director finds a treasure trove in this material that’s been sitting in the National Geographic vault since Lawick shot it in the 1960s. A seamless tapestry of archival images provides a rich portrait of Goodall’s work with the chimps.

Jane might be a National Geographic film, but make no mistake: it is not a documentary about animals. Morgen spins the trope of the wildlife film on its head with his ingenious interpretation of vn Lawick’s footage. Jane is ultimately a film about human nature as it observes Goodall conducting her research while van Lawick, a pre-eminent wildlife filmmaker of his time, documents her as part of the deal for her funding. His films might be recordings of the chimps in action, but van Lawick really has his eye on Goodall. Even though the 16mm snippets rarely show them in the frame together, the vitality with which Morgen rejuvenates the archival material evokes the emotions, intimacy, and connection forged by Goodall and van Lawick in the wild. One doesn’t grasp the same feeling looking at the chimps—even when van Lawick films them making whoopee, which is often.

The film features archival audio of Goodall rambling off her observations on the chimp’s behaviour, while new interviews with Morgen discuss both her love and her work. These interview sequences, like those with Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain’s family in Montage of Heck, feature the director’s signature interview lighting scheme in which the composition starts bright as daylight and the lights dim with the dramatic turn of the story. This same progression appears naturally (or via the editing) of van Lawick’s exceptionally shot footage of Goodall at work. Their story is bittersweet and the timbre in Goodall’s voice—it’s often hard to tell which audio snippets are new and which are old—suggest a love that never died.

While Jane is a love story about Goodall and van Lawick, it’s also a love story about Goodall’s unabashed passion for her work. (Her work is all the more impressive when Jane reminds us that Goodall lacks formal training.) Spliced together meticulously by Morgen and fellow editors Joe Beshenkovsky and Will Zndaric, Jane is a dynamic fresco of this anthropological pioneer. Cut with breathtaking verve and energy, the film splices the reels of this wildlife footage together with an energetic zip. The giddy thrill of academia, the pursuit of knowledge, and the exhilarating adrenaline high of exploring uncharted terrain all resonate in this seamless collage that puts one right in the headspace of the maverick Goodall. Watch her inquisitive eye follow the chimps and jot down her thoughts on paper. Morgen’s film puts audiences alongside Goodall for the ride of scientific breakthrough and it’s a thrill.

Wander deep into the thick of the jungle with Goodall as she gets remarkably close to these chimps. The proximity of the camera to the animals illustrates just how confident Goodall is in her relationship with the animals, while these creatures’ comfort with the good researcher affords a sense that animals and humans have, deep down, a mutual understanding of one another within the natural order of things. Goodall feels it too and her famous observations, research, and conclusions dissolve the borders between species.

Jane swells with emotion thanks to an evocative and propulsive original score by composer Philip Glass (The Hours, The Truman Show). Documentaries rarely afford such a starring role to music and Morgen’s confidence in Glass’s compositions allow Jane to soar as the strings and piano keys swell and swirl with the maelstrom of passion that Goodall finds for van Lawick and her chimps in the heart of Africa. For a project that essentially began as a work for hire project for Morgen by National Geographic, it's a remarkable stroke of authorship--and a brave show of support for National Geographic to give Morgen so much license with the material. Too few documentaries are so fearless in their confidence with materials and aesthetics, but Jane shows that with the right subject, canvas, painter, and paintbrush, any life—human or non-human—can be a work of breathtaking art.

Jane opens in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, Nov. 10.