New Jane Goodall Documentary Is Most Intimate Portrait Yet, Says Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall reaches out to touch hands with Flint, the first infant born at Gombe after her arrival. (National Geographic Creative/Hugo van Lawick)

Jane Goodall reaches out to touch hands with Flint, the first infant born at Gombe after her arrival. (National Geographic Creative/Hugo van Lawick)

Jane Goodall used to dream about being a man—literally.

“I suppose my mind turned me into a man in my dreams so I could have the sort of dreams that I subconsciously wanted,” she tells Smithsonian.com. “I could do more exciting things in my dreams if I was a man.” After all, the pioneering chimp researcher’s favorite childhood books were Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan, both of which featured daring and cunning men, with women playing the supportive role. “Tarzan's Jane was a wimpy pathetic little creature," she says. "I didn't want to be like that."

These are the kind of intimate details in store for viewers of Jane, a new documentary on Goodall composed of 140 hours of 16mm recordings that had been tucked away in the archives of National Geographic for over 50 years. Wildlife videographer Hugo van Lawick, who later became Goodall's husband, shot the footage in the early 1960s for a National Geographic documentary. But after it was spliced and diced, the remainder of the footage sat forgotten in the archives—until now.

Jane is directed by Brett Morgen, known for his biopics of cultural icons like The Rolling Stones and Kurt Cobain. When Morgen received the film in 2015, he was taken aback. "We thought we were going to get 140 hours of scenes," he tells Smithsonian.com. Instead, he had 140 hours of misordered shots. "It was as if someone took all of the letters ... that are used to [write] the book Watership Down ... put them on the floor and then said make the words," he explains. He and his team shut down production and began sorting through what he refers to as an "insane jigsaw puzzle."  

But under his direction, the scenes slowly came to life.

By now most people know how Goodall’s hard-won discoveries about chimp intelligences reshaped our thinking about what we now know to be one of our closest evolutionary ancestors. But Jane, which hit select theatres in October, invites viewers on a more personal journey through the jungle—delving into the Goodall's first love, the birth of her son and the many challenges she faced as an ambitious woman in a male-dominated field. Many moments hint at genuine interactions: Goodall occasionally looks directly at the camera, perhaps flirting with Hugo, who sits behind the lens. In one scene, Hugo grooms Jane like a fellow chimp, and in another Jane sticks her tongue out at the camera (and Hugo).

Unlike past narratives, the film also takes a less fawning, and more down-to-earth tone toward Goodall’s accomplishments and life's work. "Because I wasn't a sycophant, I approach things perhaps as matter of factly as she did," says Morgan. "Now from where I sit today, I consider myself one of the world's greatest Jane Goodall fans, and am in completely in awe of her. But at the time, that wasn't where my head was at," he adds. Smithsonian.com interviewed the wildlife icon on her reactions to the film and how she navigated the many challenges in her career.

What was your reaction when you heard that National Geographic had found this footage and hoped to make a new documentary?

When somebody said that the Geographic wanted to make another film, I said, "not another one." Geographic [had already] went through all of Hugo's material and took out what they considered the best. But in the end, I was persuaded it would be a good idea.

What did you think about final result?

I think it's a very honest use of the footage. It showed things as they were without trying to cut it and smooth it.

It took me back to those early days in the way that no other documentary has. I just felt I was there in the forest. It's got more family life. It's got Grub (Goodall’s affectionate nickname for her son, Hugo Eric Louis) when he's a little gorgeous baby. I'd forgotten how beautiful he was.

And you know, It's got some fascinating material that certainly hasn't ever been seen.

Read the full interview at Smithsonian.com

EnvironmentMaya Wei-Haas