Jane and the Magic of Being There

National Geographic Studios

A young woman moves through the dense forest, climbing up trees and over rocks and streams. She peers through binoculars, observing. The strings on the score swell and fall in gentle steps, lapping rhythmically like water on rocks, propelling her forward, drawing us in. Insects and birds buzz all around. The woman is researcher and environmental activist Jane Goodall. At just 26, with no college degree, she has entered Gombe National Park in Tanzania to make contact with wild chimpanzees. She lowers the binoculars and looks into the distance, smiling.

“Since I was 8 or 9 years old, I had dreamed of being in Africa, of living in the bush among live animals,” she says, in serene voiceover, as her younger self clambers up river banks and pulls herself onto tree boughs. “Suddenly, I found I was actually living in my dream.”

Goodall is a fascinating and deeply inspirational figure—a fearless and determined woman who went alone into the jungle, fell in love with it, and even raised her child there. The 2017 documentary Jane evokes the triumphant and beautiful realization of waking to find oneself in a dream, and then finding that the dream has become reality. Through a stirring bit of cinematic alchemy, director Brett Morgen reconstructs Goodall’s journey through Gombe, and also gives us a glimpse of her aspirations, thoughts, and memories. While it utilizes documentary wildlife footage, the film is just as firmly planted in the world of fantasy, of subjectivity rather than objectivity.

In telling Goodall’s story, Jane grapples with the tension in our waking lives of experiencing real events as incredibly surreal. This is particularly true when it comes to nature, whose hidden secrets continually awe us. I remember viewing the 2017 solar eclipse from within the zone of totality and witnessing its effects—the sudden chill in the air, a dark orb suspended in the sky, the shadows off-kilter. I was profoundly shaken by the sheer strangeness of it all, which is how I imagine Jane must have felt, too. Throughout the film, vivid colors and dreamlike motions of the score help to portray Jane’s memories of her first encounters with the jungle. In these sequences, the whole forest seems to glow. As she walks, she pushes aside thick branches with leaves so vibrant they seem to have a halo around them. Through it all, the score underlines her movements as she seeks the chimpanzees.

The existence of the film is somewhat fantastical in itself. Shot by wildlife photographer Hugo Van Lawick (who Goodall later married), the gorgeous 16mm footage—140 hours in total—was in complete disarray, with no notes or index of any kind to help the filmmakers put it together. Even to Morgen, who has previously utilized found footage and archival materials for documentaries like Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck and The Kid Stays in the Picture, the task seemed daunting. As he told Deadline, “It was as if someone had come to us and emptied out two suitcases of letters and said, ‘If you can find the right combination of letters, you’ll create the book Watership Down. Good luck.’”

Even more so than in a scripted film, any relationship between two shots in Jane is constructed, the result of hours of work behind the scenes identifying sequences that would create the illusion of continuity. But rather than detract from the experience, this bit of added chaos enhances the dreamlike atmosphere, making it meandering and hypnotic, like watching the ebb and flow of a stream.

The editing also draws comparisons between Jane’s behavior and that of the other animals in the forest, highlighting an understanding she helped bring to the scientific community—that other animals aren’t all that different from us. A shot of a snake gliding across the ground is followed by another of Jane crawling on her belly to get through a particularly dense patch of bushes. Later, as the sun goes down, the chimps settle down into nests built high in the branches. These images are intercut with footage of Jane, wrapping herself in a blanket as the night air cools, and lying down to sleep for the night.

Though Jane and the chimpanzee subjects are the centerpiece of the film, Morgen avails himself of Van Lawick’s other nature photography, from wide Serengeti vistas to intimate close-ups of caterpillars and other insects. The scope of the images allows us to bask in the kinds of small wonders that only reveal themselves after you sit still in one place, becoming part of the landscape: The insects in vivid close-up, dangling from mammoth branches, dew gleaming from tiny incandescent hairs. Visions that seem almost too vibrant to be real.

The film’s expressive use of color and sound are part of what make Jane so emotionally potent. Morgen recognizes that memory is a surreal place. He himself uses the term “magical realism” in describing his approach to the documentary. To realize the Gombe of Jane’s memories, Morgen and his collaborators enhanced the footage and sound, “using the latest digital technologies to create a look that was physically impossible back in 1965, where they had no way to approach contrast grading whatsoever.” In short, the footage looks even better now than it did when it was shot.

Sound design also plays a significant role in Jane’s immersive, dreamlike aesthetic. Because Lawick’s film was silent, the filmmakers relied on archived student recordings from the Jane Goodall Institute to create the soundtrack. These forest sounds were then interwoven with a hypnotic Philip Glass score and choreographed to the images, which helped to create the film’s immersive quality. If you’re lucky enough to have seen Jane in theaters, you experienced surround sound that put you in the thick of it, insects clicking and chirping all around you. In one of the film’s most evocative moments, a group of chimpanzees finally trusts Goodall enough to allow her into their inner circle. Time seems to slow down, and the joyful cries of the apes intermingle with Glass’ score, blurring fantasy and reality.

The focus on Goodall’s perspective is what makes Jane stand apart from other documentaries about her. While Goodall has maintained an ambivalent attitude towards past documentaries, she feels differently about Morgen’s film.​ Jane doesn’t attempt to explain her research or findings, rather it paints a portrait of Gombe through Goodall’s eyes. In interviews, Goodall reflected that it was the first film that truly evoked the feeling of being there. As she told Screen Daily, “Other documentaries are more carefully edited and designed to show various parts of the story, but this one showed things as they were. It was quite moving.”

In a way, this film operates as a microcosm for the elaborate illusions of both filmmaking and filmgoing. Cinema is an act of prestidigitation; still images give the illusion of movement, and movement gives the illusion of life. Jane recalls the earliest days of documentary cinema when just seeing a small slice of the world inspired great awe. Consider the films of the Lumiere Brothers, who documented quotidian slices of life, such as workers leaving a factory for the day, or a train coming into the station. While the technological magic has evolved in the intervening years, the immediacy of film remains potent.

Take, for instance, the moment Goodall discusses the individuality of the chimpanzees she has come to know: “Staring into the eyes of a chimpanzee, I saw a thinking, reasoning personality looking back,” she says. As she speaks, we see each ape in deep close up and are given time to examine the features and expression of each one. Like Jane, we are suddenly face to face with these magnificent apes, able to see them as they truly are.  

For those of us who don’t live there, the wildness of a jungle can seem almost too strange to be real. And this perception of strangeness—the sensory overload of new colors and creatures and rhythms—is brought to a fever pitch through Jane’s manipulations of color and sound. The film helps viewers come closer to understanding Goodall’s memories of watching and comprehending the lush, untouched beauty of the environment around her. We follow Goodall back into her own memories, a transportative leap in space and time. The resulting film seems unlikely, given its origins as raw footage that sat around for decades waiting to be transformed. Morgen created a puzzle that unspools and pieces together as we watch. To share in someone else’s memories is among the greatest, most magical gifts of film, a personal history unleashed into our minds.