Movies

In Focus

‘Jane’ looks at the life and loves of conservationist Goodall

An undated photo of Jane Goodall in the Gombe jungle in Tanzania, with an infant chimp she named Flint, from Brett Morgen’s film “Jane.”
National Geographic Creative/Hugo van Lawick
An undated photo of Jane Goodall in the Gombe jungle in Tanzania, with an infant chimp she named Flint, from Brett Morgen’s film “Jane.”

TORONTO — Director Brett Morgen was visibly overwhelmed when the audience erupted in a standing ovation after the premiere screening of “Jane” at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. He called the subject, Jane Goodall, to the stage, introducing the 83-year-old conservationist as a “rock star.”

Morgen should know. His other documentaries include “Cobain: Montage of Heck” (2015), about Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, and “Crossfire Hurricane” (2012), about the Rolling Stones.

“I’m drawn to theatricality, which Jane is not. But she is stunning, let’s not disregard that. You watch the film [which features early footage of the 26-year-old Goodall] and she looks like Meryl Streep! Two of my most intelligent friends, who knew nothing about Jane, saw the film, then asked me who the actress was,” Morgen said.

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The director combed through more than 100 hours of previously unseen 16mm footage of Goodall’s early-’60s expedition to the Gombe jungle in Tanzania to study chimpanzees in the wild. Her mentor Louis Leakey in 1960 had dispatched the British-born Goodall, who worked as Leakey’s secretary, to observe and document chimpanzee behavior, research that had never before been undertaken. National Geographic in 1964 hired Dutch filmmaker Hugo van Lawick to record Goodall’s groundbreaking work. Goodall and van Lawick soon fell in love, married, and had a son together before they divorced in 1974. Van Lawick died in 2002.

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For Morgen, the well-preserved footage that had been stored in the National Geographic archives for some 50 years was the key to the project. Some of the footage had been used in the National Geographic 1965 TV documentary “Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees,” narrated by Orson Welles, “which is a truly remarkable documentary of the time,” Morgen says. “But when I saw it, I knew I had to make the film. I thought: This can’t be the Jane Goodall film. They’d incorporated the footage over the years [into other films] so Jane was like, ‘It’s been done. There’s nothing left to do.’ She didn’t know me or my work. She didn’t know that my singular mission is to create an immersive experience. The goal from the get-go was to put the audience in Gombe with Jane. No backstory — boom — you are in there with sound coming from all over.”

Morgen conducted fresh interviews with Goodall at her home in Tanzania. But Goodall, who’s been interviewed countless times, wasn’t revealing anything new about herself. Morgen panicked at how he was going to get Goodall to talk about the past. “It was really about Hugo; how can I get her to talk about Hugo? . . . I had to find inroads to jog her memory.”

At the TIFF screening, Goodall admitted that she agreed to let Morgen come to Tanzania because she thought his film would “take the message to more people.” Besides the Jane Goodall Institute, she oversees the Roots & Shoots youth outreach and action program, among other conservation efforts.

“I’d never met him before. We met for three hours in Tanzania and that turned into two full days,” says Goodall. “Now that I’ve seen the [finished] film — there hasn’t been another film that has taken me back to the way I was then. This one does. It’s so totally brilliant what [Morgen] has done.”

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Early on, Morgen identified “Jane” as a love story.

“Not between a man and woman, and not between a woman and a chimpanzee, [but] a love story between a person and their vocation: Hugo and film and Jane and chimpanzees.

“The amazing thing is that you’re really watching Hugo fall in love with Jane on camera,” he says. He showed Goodall footage “where the chimps are mating and you see Jane looking at Hugo, through his lens. He was falling in love with her. It brought her back to a place and she went there with us.”

Loren King can be reached at loren.king@comcast.net.