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Jane Is an Extraordinary Portrait of an International Icon

We are in the midst of a kind of golden age of documentary filmmaking. There are so many standouts this year, as there are every year, and it’s virtually impossible to see them all. One that should not be missed is National Geographic’s Jane.

Directed by Brett Morgan and covering the life of Dr. Jane Goodall, Jane features never before seen footage of the young revolutionary setting foot into the Gombe reserve for the first time in 1960. As much of a big fan as I am, I didn’t know a great deal about the young Jane. I didn’t know how she’d gotten to the Gombe in the first place, how difficult it was for her as a young woman to do it. I didn’t know she would meet her husband there, that eventually she’d have a baby boy of her own and that she would have to decide between pursuing her important work and giving her son a good life. It’s something women always must wrestle with because, mostly, our work is not designed for women but for men who can leave children at home with the women.

Jane shows us so much of that early footage, and it’s remarkable not just because the person shooting it is in love with Jane, or might soon be, but because it shows how Goodall pioneered the human/chimp relationship, a way to do science without losing our humanity. Eventually, Goodall would help to release chimps from scientific research labs and would use her work to prove to the scientific community and the mostly ignorant world of humans that these are not pets or toys but are intelligent, thinking, complex and complicated primates — our cousins — who deserve our respect and our protection. We humans are worth nothing if we can’t protect them and other animals from the ravages of our own imperfect species.

Jane intersperses interviews with Jane with the archival footage that introduced Jane to the world of academics. Her ambition was bigger than the confines of what a standard education at the time would have allowed her to do, or taught her what was and was not thought to be important. That Goodall’s work with chimps depended on her having an open mind, one free of the constraints a former education might have afflicted her with. She trusted her own observations and drew unique conclusions based on those. She became familiar with families of chimps, gave them names and tracked their evolution within their chimp clan. How do males behave? How do females? How do mothers and babies interact? How do they mate? How do they compete? How do they care for one another, and how do they fight?

The film offers us a chance to listen to Jane’s own rumination about her life then and now. It is that perspective of hers that enabled her to be such a great receiver of information from a different species. All of those observations she speaks about. What’s remarkable is how different chimpanzees were from the way anyone else in the scientific community was writing about or talking about. She understood them in a way no one else really did.

In the calm quiet of the jungle where the cycle of life repeats itself daily — with creatures being born, mating, eating each other for food, there is a balance we humans have not mastered. Worse, we have separated ourselves from it, spring-boarding off a kind of manufactured imbalance. That imbalance has turned into a crisis.

Jane comes at a time when we’re on the brink of or in the midst of the sixth mass extinction in the history of life on earth. There is no doubt as to the cause: it’s us. There are too many of us, we’re using too many resources, we’re warming the planet, destroying natural habitats, disrupting migration paths, polluting the ocean with plastic and noise and toxins, consuming so much meat that the methane gas coming from livestock every year remains one of the worst causes of greenhouses gases. Although India and China appear to be taking the matter seriously, nothing in the United States indicates that we are. We just elected a president and an administration that will lift all regulations on coal production, drill baby drill, and if you think Americans are going to give up their cars, their toys and their meat you are greatly mistaken. In America we are raised to take what we want, consume what we want regardless of the consequences.

Watching the film Jane is an essential reminder that there are good humans out there who are motivated to do more than fret, but to take a chance as a young woman at a time when women were just starting to understand that they wanted more than just staying at home and raising families. Though not overtly feminist, or even particularly political, Jane Goodall is one of the best examples of why being female can actually enhance scientific observation. For her it became a lifelong commitment. She’s still at it, in fact. She’s actually out there, traveling from place to place, getting the word out. I will be telling everyone I know to see Jane, and I will hope that she inspires a generation to follow in her footsteps — those feet that traveled all the way to the Gombe all those years ago.  Jane Goodall — where she leads, I will follow.