It was in November 1960, five months into her research trip to study chimpanzees in the Kigoma Region of Zimbabwe (now Gombe National Park), that Jane Goodall, aged 26, observed the primates using ‘modified objects’ – that is, tools – for the first time in recorded history. On telegramming the news back to her mentor, the anthropologist Louis Leakey, for whom she had formerly worked as a secretary, Goodall caused a sensation. Hers was a discovery with radical implications for our understanding of humankind, previously thought to be the only species with the ability to manufacture and wield tools. But this was not what all the papers chose to focus on, opting instead for headlines including ‘Comely Miss Spends Her Time Eyeing Apes’ and ‘Beauty and her Beasts’.
Goodall’s response today is dismissive, nonchalant: “People said my fame was due to my legs. It was so stupid – it didn’t bother me.” We hear this in the extended account, somehow both comprehensive and intimate in its scope, given to director Brett Morgen for Jane, his new documentary, first released in September 2017. Why is this? Because for all the ways in which the pioneering Goodall has refused to conform to prescribed gender roles – first as a child, dreaming of herself as a man so she could do the “more exciting things” men did; then as a single, untrained woman pursuing this dream, of going to Africa and living in the wild; later as a wife and mother refusing to sacrifice this now-realised dream for her family – the woman in Morgen’s film wasn’t really giving much thought to the rest of the world and what it had to say, not at that point anyway. The activism and writing, the television appearances, and eventual documentaries all spreading Goodall’s passion for the study and conservation of animals would come, but later.
For Goodall, it has always all been about the chimpanzees: getting nearer and nearer to them, gaining their trust, first in order to understand them through closer observation, then out of something far closer to friendship, to love. There is no need for Goodall to state these feelings to Morgen, because we watch them emerge on screen. Making Jane, Morgen had the rare privilege of access to over 100 hours of footage shot by Hugo van Lawick, renowned wildlife photographer and Goodall’s first husband, whose loving filming during the early years of the couple’s relationship was thought lost until its rediscovery in the National Geographic Archive in 2015. Just as, in the film, Goodall asserts her belief in the importance both of fate and of hard work in the achievement of success, Morgen proves himself simultaneously profoundly lucky and diligently deserving of the gift of these hours of beautiful, candid footage, which he spent many months restoring to vivid colour and sound. With some barely necessary exceptions – a few brief filmed segments of Goodall interviewed by the director, one or two other recordings from public appearances or flashes of family photographs, some interspersed animations of diary entries, correspondence, and scientific models – the visual content of Jane is entirely made up of van Lawick’s filming.
We witness Goodall as she becomes increasingly absorbed in the world of the chimpanzee community at Gombe: first the sweet, silent smiles and affectionate nicknames, then a hand-fed banana, a tickle under the tummy. A few years later, a crisis develops: a polio epidemic, probably caused by the human feeding and contact, that cripples Goodall’s first and favourite chimp friend, David Greybeard. Her team makes the controversial decision to euthanise him. “I see no difference between helping an animal and helping a human,” Goodall (controversially, in some quarters) avers. Afterwards, protocol is changed and researchers are no longer permitted to touch their subjects of observation. Goodall is pained by this loss of physical closeness.
The scientific community has at points cast doubt over Goodall’s methods, finding her guilty, in her words, “of the worst of ethological sins – anthropomorphism.”¹ There’s a familiar tinge of misogyny to this inherent, almost automatic suspicion of feeling and attachment. But Goodall has always defiantly asserted the subjectivity of her relationship with the animal world. The very structure of Jane reflects this assertion. Threaded through the story of her research and the lives of the chimpanzees she is documenting, Goodall’s own life story unfolds. More accurately: the two narratives merge as one, of an evolving, complex dynamic between human and primate subjects. In 1964, much to Goodall’s delight, one of the chimps gives birth to an infant – an exciting opportunity to embark on a study of the species across an individual, potentially 50-year, lifespan. Goodall herself became a mother three years later, to a son named Hugo Jr. (nicknamed ‘Grub’). She emphasises how much she learnt from Flo about what kind of mother she wanted to be: playful, supportive, patient and ever-present, unencumbered by Western society’s expectations of appropriate levels of maternal engagement and love.
And yet, over time, Goodall’s understanding of the animals develops. Things get more difficult for Flo and Flint, as the now-elderly mother struggles to assert a healthy separation from her increasingly clingy adolescent. Flo eventually dies; Flint, who never gained the required independence from her, enters into a depression, stops eating, and himself dies around three weeks later. Goodall makes the difficult decision to send her school-age son to England to live with her own mother, so he can be educated and properly socialised (although always ensuring that Grub’s school holidays are spent together) while she can continue with her work. We are not just like the apes, it turns out – always a disappointing revelation for those insisting on biological gender determinism. The difference lies in our brains, and the comparative freedoms our advanced intellectual development has allowed us.
Flo’s death, Goodall believes, also triggered a change in the Gombe chimp community. A slow-growing rift between two groups occupying territories in the northern and southern areas of the park eventually resulted in full-blown war and the massacre of all ten individuals who broke away from the main group. It’s a devastating development for Goodall, who realises that until then, perhaps naively, “I thought the chimps were just like us, only nicer”. Interpretations of the discovery of this potential for darkness within primates have been varied, but in the documentary the point is clear: we are not allowed to shy away from either the differences or the darker similarities between people and primates. But, if we are to follow Goodall, we must love the animals anyway.
I cannot comment on the nuances of Goodall’s approach from a scientific perspective, in terms of how it may have hindered (or assisted) Leakey and Goodall’s goal of gaining knowledge both of chimpanzee behaviour and of humankind’s own evolution. From an ethical, philosophical, political perspective, the value of her contributions is clear. For Goodall, emotional involvement with the chimpanzees not only reflected a desire to understand their thinking. She sought to integrate into the very fabric of her subjectivity those so radically different from us as to constitute a different species.
Entering into this spirit, Morgen’s film too is unabashedly sentimental, with narrative arcs and twists (accompanied by the swelling intensities of Philip Glass’s score) making this audience weep with all the skill of the past century’s best romantic dramedies. But these are tears shed with good, and real, reason. As Goodall states so passionately in the final moments of the film, our planet and its occupants, animal and human alike, are in serious danger, as a result of our own “thoughtless” behaviour; we can only hope, and be inspired by portraits such as this, for better stewardship from current and future generations.
1. Masson, Jeffrey and McCarthy, Susan, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, Delta, 1996
Gabrielle Schwarz is web editor at Apollo magazine.