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'Jane' Is a Love Story - of Nature, and of Human Nature
March 12, 2018  | By David Hinckley


There’s a splendid scene in the movie Love, Actually where Keira Knightley’s character asks Andrew Lincoln’s character if she can see the video he shot of her wedding.

He hems and haws and when she finally breaks him down, she realizes why he was reluctant: He hasn’t really shot the wedding, only pictures of her.

That scene came to mind, in a good way, while I was watching Jane, the acclaimed documentary that gets its world broadcast premiere Monday, March 12 at 8 p.m. ET on Nat Geo Wild.

This Jane is Jane Goodall, who has become world-famous over the last half century for her pioneering studies of African chimpanzees in Gombe.  Those studies continue today, and filmmaker Brett Morgen includes extensive new interviews with Goodall in the 90-minute documentary.

This is far from the first Goodall film, but it has something the others did not: excerpts from hundreds of hours of footage shot by Goodall’s soon-to-be husband Hugo Van Lawick during her early years in Africa.

Van Lawick, who died in 2002, was one of the 20th century’s great wildlife photographers, and he was sent by National Geographic to document Goodall’s work, which was revolutionary not only for its behavioral revelations, but because the idea of a single woman doing this kind of research on her own in the wilds of Africa was almost unthinkable.

Van Lawick shot extensive video, much of which sat in the National Geographic vaults for half a century, uncatalogued and unwatched.

Morgen uses that footage beautifully, and the visuals themselves are nothing short of brilliant.  

Their spectacular, vibrant colors burst off the screen, even a modest TV screen, and the close-ups of creatures from elephants down to snakes and insects look like they came from, well, the pages of National Geographic.

They also, quite incidentally, conjure Love, Actually.

While this may not have been true for the larger body of film, the excerpts Morgen has selected often feel like a slide show of Jane. We see Jane hiking through verdant valleys, hopping across pristine streams. Mostly we see Jane perched on hillsides or nestled in the brush, looking pensively over the land through which wander the chimps.

There’s nothing wrong with this. You just have to wonder if Hugo Van Lawick, like Andrew Lincoln, sometimes got mesmerized by a subject with whom he was falling in love.

Morgen’s documentary itself delves more deeply into Goodall’s personal life than most past works, though it avoids nuts-and-bolts subjects like food, shelter, medical supplies and communications. It’s more biographical, as she talks about growing up in England wanting only to get to Africa to live among the animals.

When she was 26, Dr. Louis Leakey gave her that chance, despite the fact she had no scientific training. As she describes it, she just walked out toward the chimps every day until finally, after some five months, they stopped always running away and accepted her into the community.

As she has written for so many years, she found those communities in many ways indistinguishable from human neighborhoods. That correctly suggests some of their behavior was less than saintly, and Morgen doesn’t exclude that side.

After many years of watching the chimps live in relative harmony and peace, Goodall found to her chagrin that they were also capable of brutally slaughtering each other. Before that, she reflects ruefully, she naively thought “they were like us, but nicer.”

Morgen also notes the polio epidemic that devastated the chimp community, forcing Goodall to euthanize the first chimp who had welcomed her into their world.

On the personal side, Goodall notes, without going into much detail, that she and Van Lawick ultimately divorced because neither would give up his or her work to accommodate the other.

She remains close to the son from that marriage, however, and on the whole she calls her life a delight, because she lived her dream.

She is still involved with the Gombe chimp study, which has expanded under the Goodall Institute she founded, and she spends her time traveling the world urging people everywhere “to be better stewards of the planet than we were.” Since 1986, she tells Morgen, she has spent “no more than three weeks consecutive in any one place.”

If she gets her picture taken a lot, she deserves it.

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