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JANE (2017) review

October 29, 2017

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written by: Jane Goodell (based on her writings)
produced by: Tony Gerber and Brett Morgan
directed by: Brett Morgan
rated: not rated
runtime: 90 min.
U.S. release date: October 16, 2017 (Chicago International Film Festival) and October 27, 21017 thru November 2, 2017 (Arclight Theatre, Chicago, IL)

 

I was left with a buzzing sense of peace and contentment after watching the “Jane”, probably goosebumps as well. That could attribute to the beautifully composed, contemplative score from Phillip Glass, but it is undoubtedly due to the subject of this revealing documentary. I can’t think of an octogenarian more inspiring than British anthropologist, environmentalist, author and animal rights activist, Jane Goodall and it really doesn’t matter what you do or don’t know  about her going in. That’s because award-winning director Brett Morgen (“The Kid Stays in the Picture” and “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”) acquired access to intimate footage of Goodall studying and interacting with chimpanzees going back to the 1960s that’s been unreleased until now. 

There have been many documentaries about Goodall and her findings, but this isn’t just a look at who she is – it’s an illuminating look at what she’s done (and still doing) with her inspirational life.

Using over 140 hours of 16mm archival reels recently discovered in National Geographic archives, Morgen and editor Joe Beshenkovsky painstakingly compile the footage that was shot by Goodall’s future husband, Dutch wildlife filmmaker and photographer, Hugo van Lawick. The intimate footage captures Goodall’s first experiences in Gombe, Tanzania, where she wound up being accepted by the chimps and also includes the introduction of van Lawick into her life (who was assigned by National Geographic to chronicle Goodall two years after her arrival) and many of the challenges and successes that came with studying the creatures, living a life abroad, raising a child and maintaining a marriage on the compound. “Jane” addresses how respected anthropologist Louis Leakey persuaded and recruited Goodall, solely based on her passion for animals and desire to learn. Many know that her work changed the way we understand chimpanzees, but what we see here is how revolutionary it was at the time for a woman to set out on her own and make a life and career for herself.

 

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Throughout the film, Goodall reflects on where her resilience and determination came from as she recalls how her mother played a major part in supporting her interests and encouraging her passions, even to the point of traveling with Goodall during her first arrival to Gombe. Her mother would maintain the camp and provisions, leaving Jane free to focus on her work. That work involves hours and hours of getting closer to the chimpanzees and the more we see Goodall do that, the more we understand how her passion was nurtured. It’s a reminder that what often provides us a greater understanding of icons is learning more about the path they embarked on as they become the figures they would come to be known for.

Morgen presents the footage in “Jane” with precision; often displaying a distinct style and intercutting scenes of his interview conversation he recorded with present-day Goodall, but he knows his subject needs no embellishment and allows Goodall’s compelling story carry the film. Combining the newly surfaced  footage with Goodall’s own recollections offers a multi-dimensional perspective and an in-depth portrait of her life. The director works with cinematographer Ellen Kuras to assemble the footage from Van Lawick in a chronological and informative manner and the beautiful music that accompanied the film from Phillip Glass turns out to be one of the best scores the prolific musician has composer in some time.

“Jane” doesn’t just inform viewers what Goodall learned and relayed to scholars back in “the civilized world”, it also shows how these chimps changed her life and helped her look at the world in a different way. Eventually, once she became married to van Lawick and they had a son, she found value in continuing to reside at the national park with her family, desiring to continue her work and understanding that being surrounding by the jungle and its inhabitants would benefit her son. There’s an evident gentleness and strength to Goodall, from the early footage to the present-day inserts, but there’s also a realism to her that makes her more compelling.

 

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When she started to become a popular character around the world, the media commented on her looks first and her findings second, but she figured if her “nice legs” brought an awareness to the way of life and needs of chimps then such superficial observations could be tolerated. Goodall also had the fortitude to realize that her son would need an education back in London and decided to send him there while she remained in Africa at a certain age. She also continued her work after she and van Lawick amicably separated as he continued to produce award-winning work in the Serengeti. As time went on, she would found the Jane Goodall Institute, the Roots & Shoots program (which began in 1991 and serves to bring together youth from preschool to university age to work on environmental, conservation and humanitarian issues) and she has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues.

Ultimately, Morgen has made a mesmerizing documentary that serves as a portrait of perseverance, steadfastness and love. Mostly of the love Goodall has for chimpanzee species, but also the love she had with van Lawick and for the son they had together. I can’t imagine watching this film and not being inspired and moved, not being reminded that there are indeed good people out there making a difference by following their passion. It’s required viewing – not just for every girl, but everyone.

“Jane” premiered last month at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) where it received much buzz and it was shown earlier this week at the Chicago International Film Festival (TIFF), but it’s now being released in limited theaters (hopefully widening in the coming weeks) and I highly recommend checking it out on the big screen with a great sound system.

 

RATING: ***1/2

 

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