Extraordinary footage only recently discovered in the National Geographic vaults has enabled the splendour of this new documentary about ape activist Jane Goodall.
She stars in her own wonderful adventure, put together by director Brett Morgen (who did such a good job of the Hollywood tale The Kid Stays in the Picture). This is far less flamboyant affair, but casts Jane as her own jungle hero, the Tarzan figure of her own childhood dreams climbing trees in her Bournemouth garden.
Initially a secretary, she sets forth in her khaki shorts to observer the apes in Gombe, Tanzania and after a long time in the jungle, finally observes a breakthrough when she spots the chimps fashioning tools out of twigs to dig ants and termites out of the trunks and mounds. The “object modification” was a truly groundbreaking discovery that shocked the world. It changed the definition of man, for many, and resulted in its own objectification as the press frothed about this “comely”Miss, who was “pert” and “beautiful.”
Indeed Jane is striking – her eyes green, her lips red as she gazes at the chimps amid the lush foliage. “I was sure a thinking, reasoning, personality stared back at me,” she remarks in voice over.
But this isn’t just a story of Jungle Jane. It becomes about a woman’s ambition and career. She is initially lumbered with wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick and says she didn’t want anyone joining her in her paradise – and he smoked, which she really didn’t like. But it became clear, as they worked together that “I was a subject of interest as much as the chimps.”
Which is why there is so much beauty in the shots of Jane which Morgen stitches together into an adventure, soaring with a Philip Glass score.
Jane gives brith to her son Grub almost at the same time as one of her chimps, Flo, gives birth to Flint and she learns all about mother’s love from the ape.
The family become fractured by demands of Hugo’s job who goes off to the Serengeti to shoot other animals and becomes one of the great wildlife photographers – the shots of wildebeest and lions and the migration at sunset still rank as stunning even in this age of nature doc saturation.
But it’s the chimps and Jane who fascinate most, with the thrilling proximity they share a source of drama, particularly when the chimps become ill, or start their own turf war. “I thought the animals were nicer than us and it took time for me to come to terms to the brutality they could show each other – the dark and evil of human nature is buried deep in our genes, and we have surely inherited it from apes.”