Brett Morgen reacts a little testily to the idea that his new film, Jane (screening in Masters) is a radical departure from his earlier documentaries, such as The Kid Stays in the Picture (2002) about Hollywood mogul Robert Evans, or Crossfire Hurricane (2012), about the Rolling Stones.
The new film (commissioned by National Geographic) tells the story of how Jane Goodall, a young English woman who went to Africa in her mid-20s to study chimpanzees, became a legendary figure in the worlds of conservation and anthropology. “Listen, she is an icon who has lived life by her own rules,” Morgen declares. “She has defined and re-defined her vocation. In that sense, I think she is very similar to Bob Evans, Kurt Cobain or the Stones.”
Goodall tends to bewitch those who work with her. This was certainly the case with composer Philip Glass. “When I first heard Phillip’s initial cues and themes, it was quite clear that he was enamoured by Jane. When I spoke to him after he submitted the first cues, he said, ‘I am not sure if you’ve noticed but I think I am falling in love with Jane.’ I said: ‘Yes, but I think it is good for the film, Philip, carry on!’”
Morgen had access to over 160 hours of rare 16-mm colour footage of Goodall living and working in the jungles of Tanzania. This was shot by her Dutch husband, Hugo van Lawick, a legendary figure in wildlife photography, at the Gombe National Park where she first went in 1960. “The footage was originally shot for a 1965 documentary that was heavily narrated; one that Jane and Hugo completely rejected, both for inaccuracies and for its presentation,” the director explains of why this material had lain unseen for so long.
Morgen interviewed Goodall over a period of two days. “When you are interviewing someone who has told her story so many times, there is an inherent challenge,” the director says. She may have been a tough interviewee, but she was articulate and frank. He describes his work with her as very similar to Goodall’s work tracking and studying the chimpanzees.
There is a fable-like element to Goodall’s story. “I wanted to come as close to talking to animals as I could, to be like Dr Doolittle,” Goodall, now 83, tells the director. “Since I was 8 years old, I had dreamed of living in Africa. I found myself living in my dream.” She wanted to “do things men did and women didn’t.” At first, it seemed that Goodall had indeed found her Eden. Then, darkness intruded. Her marriage ended. She learned about the brutality with which the apes sometimes behaved.
“The movie is an emotional rollercoaster,” Morgen says. It deals both with the upheavals in Jane’s own life and heart-breaking events in the lives of the chimps. “There are parts of this film where you almost feel you are watching a Jungle Book or Disney film. You forget these are wild chimpanzees … you forget these animals could have killed Jane and Hugo at any given second.”
Header photo: Corinne de Korver