How would you approach scientific research if you weren’t formally trained? What new questions should you ask in your scientific inquiry? How would you accomplish a seemingly impossible task with no blueprint? Those are the questions I was still left pondering a week after seeing the documentary Jane, the touchstone piece on the life of Jane Goodall from director Brett Morgen.
Pieced together from hundreds of hours of footage that had been forgotten in the National Geographic archives from Goodall’s first trip to Gombe, Jane is narrated through a Q&A with the famous primatologist. Goodall attended the premiere and joked at the introduction of the film that she wasn’t sure what why they would make yet another documentary about her because really, hadn’t people seen it all already? But, after many, many documentaries, this was the first one that made her feel like she was back in Gombe.
Where other documentaries have been about Jane and the chimps, this documentary speaks about the person, and showed her work and life as one story through her voice. It showed a woman growing up in post-World War II England with dreams of escaping to the jungle. It’s the story of how she and Hugo van Lawick, the wildlife photographer and filmmaker who covered most of Jane’s early work, fell in love and raised a son on the Serengeti, occasionally preening parenting advice from the chimps. It was the story of heartbreak, as researchers formed attachments to the animals only to see them ravaged with disease and death. Though it’s a story of scientific breakthrough, it’s a deeply moving one.
Though the pacing of the movie seemed slow at first while Goodall is wandering Gombe, it’s not without deliberation. It took months of slowly approaching and spending time near the chimpanzees before they accepted her and allowed her near enough to make the observations that changed our beliefs about the natural world and some of our closest evolutionary relatives. Her willingness to try something unconventional brought us valuable insights, shattering the illusion that the animal kingdom was so far removed from us. The chimpanzees used tools. They seemed to communicate. They had personalities and loving family unites. Siblings played and appeared to care for each other. They also shared our worst trait; the chimps that Goodall and her researchers got to know, care for, and seemingly understand fought and even killed each other. It was harrowing at times.
It was an intimate portrait of someone who we know more for her work than as a person. We got to know Jane.
I walked away from Jane inspired. A question that’s frequently missing from my repertoire is “how can we do better?” We do fall into our habits as scientists, and my habit is saying “we’re better at this than we ever have been.” That’s still true. But part of science is opening yourself up to where you’re wrong. And I’ve been wrong. Instead of saying “we’re doing this well,” I should be asking for the next innovation, the harder puzzle, and for the challenges that haven’t been solved yet.
It’s probably what Jane would do.
Jane is open in theatres now. Go see it and see what questions it opens up for you.
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