Even Jane Goodall thought there have probably been enough documentaries made about her life and work. But when Brett Morgen and National Geographic came calling, she eventually agreed to participate in a movie using newly discovered footage of her trips to Gombe, Africa to study chimpanzees in the 1960s.
“Jane,” which played as part of the International Documentary Association’s annual screening series in Los Angeles, not only spotlights Goodall’s early work, but it also tells the story of how she fell in love with her first husband, nature photographer Hugo van Lawick.
“My version of this movie was the Garden of Eden,” said Morgen, the filmmaker also behind “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” in a Q&A following the screening. “My premise was Gombe, at the very beginning when you first see it in the film, there’s this symmetry with the insects and the animals and there’s this harmony. This is so blatant, but then you see a snake and underneath the snake you hear [engine noise]. So you hear a human intrusion and then you cut to the boat and my feeling was the moment Jane set foot on those shores the place was never going to be the same again, for better or for worse.”
While Goodall has faced criticism for using poor scientific methods and intruding on the chimpanzees in their natural habitat, that topic isn’t addressed in the film — but she did discuss it with Morgen.
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“She said, ‘If I knew what I knew today I wouldn’t do it, but it was another time,'” he said. “It was a really strong piece of dialogue from Jane, but it was a piece of dialogue informed by time and I felt that it took you out of the moment, and what it really did was take you out of the romanticism of the moment because that leads into Jane and Hugo’s falling in love. It also felt disingenuous because we’re trying to allow you to experience it as it’s unfolding.”
All of the footage of Africa in the film was shot by van Lawick, and used by Morgen after a National Geographic archivist uncovered his original film in a box sitting in a hallway. While alternate takes were used in the 1965 Orson Welles film “Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” none of what’s in “Jane” has been seen before.
Morgen said that after watching the footage, he was fascinated by the love story that began to play out between Goodall and van Lawick — and that new take is partially what got Goodall interested in participating. It’s also what makes the film different than a typical nature documentary.
“To me, the film is about passion — not just hers, but Hugo’s,” Morgen added. “I think of it as a love story, but not in the traditional sense. It’s not a love story between a man and a woman, it’s a love story between a woman and her vocation and a man and his vocation. And so ultimately, it’s a happy ending.”
Watch clips from the Q&A below:
“Jane” is out in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, Oct. 20.
The IDA Documentary Screening Series brings some of the year’s most acclaimed documentary films to the IDA community and members of industry guilds and organizations. Films selected for the Series receive exclusive access to an audience of tastemakers and doc lovers during the important Awards campaigning season from September through November. For more information about the series, and a complete schedule, visit IDA.