Jane Goodall Documentary Is Beautiful, Gut-Wrenching, Profound

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Jane Goodall takes notes about chimpanzees in Tanzania. (Photo: Snapshot from video)

The new National Geographic documentary about Jane Goodall is a 90-minute-long love letter to her — and I'm all for it.

I'll admit that there's no way possible for me to write unbiased coverage about Goodall. The ground-breaking primatologist, feminist, ethologist, former baroness, anthropologist, passionate conservationist and tireless activist is a heroine of mine.

The documentary's perspective is deeply respectful of this woman's life and work, so it makes sense that animals are at the heart of the story — as Goodall would want them to be.

"Jane" was directed by the talented Brett Morgen ("The Kid Stays in the Picture" and "Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck") and includes some incredible up-close-and-personal footage from the early 1960s that was thought to be lost until it was uncovered in 2014. The beautiful music by Philip Glass lends the film the soundtrack it deserves. It's no surprise to me, after seeing the film, that it's on the Oscar shortlist for documentaries.

The beauty of an open mind

A still from the Jane Goodall documentary of the scientist observing chimps.
Over 100 hours of film footage from Goodall's early days of observing chimps in Tanzania were found and some included in the new documentary. (Photo: National Geographic)

To begin, we get a little bit about Goodall's early life, including her childhood desire to go to Africa and study animals, and an interesting tidbit about how, when she daydreamed of her future as a child, she "dreamt as a man." They were the only examples of explorers that she knew. Her family, unable to afford to send her to college, encouraged her to go after her dreams, and her mother in particular was very supportive. Goodall worked as a waitress for years to save up to go to Africa. She was working as a secretary for Louis Leakey, the famous primatologist, when she got the chance to go to Africa for six months to study chimpanzees in the wild. Humans knew almost nothing of our chimp cousins when Goodall went to Tanzania and started taking notes, as the trailer above reveals.

Goodall wasn't considered a scientist, at first. "I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could, and move among them without fear," she says. But good science is often done by those who haven't been formally trained; their minds are open to new questions and finding new ways of answering those questions. Such was the case with Goodall, who was ignorant of the popular ideas about chimpanzees at the time. Her fresh mind was one of the reasons Leakey sent the ambitious and yearning-for-adventure young woman to do this work and not someone more steeped in academia.

Upon arriving in Gombe National Park, Goodall hiked the forests each day in search of wild chimps. She saw other wildlife, but the chimps were elusive at first, only spotted from afar. Nonetheless, she says in the narration of the documentary, "I found I was living in my dream, in my own forest world." This time, she says, was one of the happiest in her life, roaming the woods of her new home, making observations and taking data. The wonderful by-hand data visualizations taken from Goodall's notebooks are a beautiful example of how science was done before computers.

Life beyond her work

Though others found her living alone in the forests of Africa odd (her mother eventually joined her for support, company, and as a kind of chaperone), Goodall says, "I had this crazy feeling: 'That nothing's going to hurt me. I'm meant to be here.'" She got very comfortable with "aloneness as a way of life" before she finally was accepted into the "magic world" of the wild chimps and was able to begin her serious observations of chimpanzee habits, family structures and breeding. The way Goodall speaks of this time, in reverent tones in the found footage from that time — brilliant birds singing in the lush greenery of Tanzania — casts a spell over the first 20 minutes of the film that had me weeping. Less sentimental souls will probably just marvel at the situation, the wonderful music and Goodall's optimism and curiosity.

From there the documentary details how Goodall collected details never known about chimps, including some breathtaking footage of the proof that chimps use tools, a discovery that rocked the establishment at the time (humans were thought to be the only tool-users). Because this is a film about Goodall, her work is foreground, but the film also includes the story of how she fell in love with her first husband, a British baron and accomplished wildlife photographer, and why she left the station at Gombe and let research students take over the wild chimp observations. Meanwhile, she and her husband set off to the Serengeti to make wildlife films and bring up their infant son. Perhaps one of my favorite parts of the documentary is when Goodall speaks of how a chimpanzee mother impacted her own parenting style.

Like her indefatigable hiking, Goodall's personal life, her work with the chimps and the fate of African wildlife all have had many ups and downs. But that's a reassuring thing, considering how great Goodall's impact has been in teaching the world about animals. Her Roots & Shoots program has influenced millions of children toward environmental and wildlife conservation.

It's a long life, if you're lucky, and Jane Goodall has proven how far passion can take you.