Among the apes

Jane Goodall and Brett Morgen on documenting chimpanzees

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jane Goodall with Jane director Brett Morgen: "I'm no longer in love with Tarzan."
Jane Goodall with Jane director Brett Morgen: "I'm no longer in love with Tarzan." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Brett Morgen's Jane, a New York Film Festival Spotlight on Documentary highlight will screen in the DOC NYC Short List programme next month. At the Soho House lunch in New York for Jane yesterday afternoon, I spoke with the director about the footage shot by Hugo van Lawick and at the post-screening Q&A, moderated by Eric Kohn, I asked Jane Goodall where she stood today with Dr Dolittle and Tarzan, her childhood heroes.

Dr Louis Leakey's secretary, a 26-year-old woman with no science degree, but great patience and an even greater love of animals, was sent to Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania in 1960 to get as close to the local wild chimpanzees as humanly possible. Jane Goodall did get phenomenally close and Brett Morgen's documentary, assembled mainly from 16mm archival footage shot by Jane's at the time soon to be husband, filmmaker and photographer Hugo van Lawick, brings us right there into their world.

Jane Goodall: "And Dr Doolittle - I still adore him. Not Rex Harrison."
Jane Goodall: "And Dr Doolittle - I still adore him. Not Rex Harrison."

The breathtaking animal footage, mostly colour, some black and white, he shot for National Geographic, is accompanied by an interview with present day Jane and an original score by Philip Glass. Jane talks about how as a child she dreamt -"as a man" - that she was going to go to Africa and live with animals. She wanted to talk to them like Dr Dolittle and be "without fear" like Tarzan.

She became the first person to ever study chimpanzees up-close in the wild and shocked the world by discovering their tool making abilities. The up to this point unseen footage gives us unforgettable glimpses into the Gombe chimpanzees' tactics of mothering and warfare, thievery and grooming. "The more I learned, the more I realised how much like us they were," says Goodall. They crave friendly contact just as we do and when the footage turns to startling black and white, we also see an all too familiar violent streak.

Baby Flint, lolloping all over the camp, enchants humans and chimpanzees alike and van Lawick's remarkable images of the Serengeti plains makes it all too clear what is at stake today with chimpanzee numbers dwindling and world leaders who see the protection of our world as an afterthought.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Early on you [in Jane] said you had dreams as a child as a man. Do you still dream as a man? And did your relationship to Dr Dolittle and Tarzan change?

Jane Goodall with Flint in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park
Jane Goodall with Flint in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park

Jane Goodall: Well, first of all, no, I don't any longer dream as a man. I think I dreamt as a man because when I was a child women didn't do the kind of things that I wanted to do. So I suppose my dream was realising what I wanted to do. My relationship with Dr Dolittle and Tarzan? I'm no longer in love with Tarzan. When I re-read that book, you know - there's still only one Tarzan movie I ever watched.

My mother saved up to take me - because we didn't have any money - to take me to one of the early Johnny Weissmuller movies. And I started to cry and she had to take me out and said "whatever's the matter?" I said "That wasn't Tarzan." So in those days we didn't … I grew up with no television.

So we imagined our heroes and heroines. So anyway, I re-read the book and there's so much killing and killing of animals, I was kind of shocked that's how it was when I was growing up. That's what happened. And Dr Dolittle - I still adore him. Not Rex Harrison.

Anne-Katrin Titze: I noticed that the footage changes to black and white a couple of times when the scenes turn to war.

Flo, Flint's mother, horsing around with Jane Goodall
Flo, Flint's mother, horsing around with Jane Goodall

Brett Morgen: Honestly, we discovered 400 feet of black and white reels, there were 4 100 foot reels - and those were the black and white reels.

AKT: It's incredible that the ones in black and white were the ones with the violence.

BM: With the violence, yes. It was amazing and it was obviously to some extent a coincidence because whatever he [Hugo van Lawick, Jane's husband] loaded in the camera that day - it's not like he took a reel out and goes I'm going to put that reel back in. The reason I think it was never used was as you could see it's very grainy. I think he probably underexposed it and had to push the film stock a couple stops.

So for Hugo, he would never use anything that grainy. And in fact a lot of our footage, I believe Hugo just flat-out rejected it because they didn't think it was usable but because of the colour grading that we can do today, we're able to restore most of this material.

Jane poster at the Soho House screening and lunch with Jane Goodall and Brett Morgen
Jane poster at the Soho House screening and lunch with Jane Goodall and Brett Morgen Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: The thematic link when it switches to black and white is powerful. It's almost like The Wizard of Oz.

BM: Exactly!

AKT: And you didn't do this? Nothing is colour changed?

BM: Just a couple of shots that blend in.

DOC NYC public screenings - Friday, November 10 at 5:15pm - Cinepolis Chelsea; Tuesday, November 14 at 12:30pm - Cinepolis Chelsea; Expected to attend: Brett Morgen

The eighth annual DOC NYC runs from November 9 through November 16.

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