Movie Review: Jane’s Journey, a documentary about the life of Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall at the 2001 Distinguished Speakers series at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.

“Jane’s Journey,” a documentary written and directed by Lorenz Knauer about the life of Jane Goodall that premiers in theaters on Friday, Sept. 23, is actually two films; and that is both the good news and the bad news, as both are interesting but neither fits organically into the structure of the other.

What I will call Part I is Jane’s journey to the wilds of the Tanzanian forests (then known as Tanganyika) to study chimpanzees. From the time she was a very small girl, triggered by the “Doctor Doolittle” stories of Hugh Lofting and the Tarzan books by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Jane determined that one day she would go to Africa. Unable to afford a university education at the time, Jane worked as a secretary long enough to earn passage to Africa. Upon arrival in Tanzania, an introduction to the great anthropologist Louis Leaky was arranged and he hired her as his secretary, eventually engaging her to conduct observational studies of chimpanzees deep within the Gombe National Forest. Leaky felt women were the best recorders of behavior as he felt their patience and nurturing were genetic; Jane’s lack of higher education was an asset as it would not result in preconceived ideas of what she should be looking for. He was right.

Jane arrived in 1960 and remained until the mid-‘80s, having married twice and raised a son, Grub, who still lives in Africa. The director and his team revisit her past life and the areas within Tanzania that shaped her. Modern-day footage of a 77-year-old Goodall among the Chimps in the Gombe National Forest is supplemented with historical footage of the striking and young Goodall working with the animals. Richard Ladkani’s cinematography is nothing short of stunning and one hoped for more photographic documentation, both of the now and the then, in what is a beautiful and in many ways still untouched part of the world.

The story shifts, rather artlessly, to present day and the numerous projects of Goodall and her eponymously named Jane Goodall Institute, in what I will call Part II. Goodall decided, in 1986, that her true mission in life was to raise awareness of how Man was destroying his environment. The hope for any renewal, she believed, would lie in making the message felt and educating youth on ways they could help save the planet. Besides supporting continued research in Gombe on the preservation of chimpanzees and their environment, she also helped start an important youth-centric and youth-led organization entitled “Roots and Shoots.” “Roots and Shoots” began with neighborhood youths meeting with Goodall on her porch in Dar es Salaam in 1991 and the founders celebrated their 10th year reunion on camera. Now in over 100 countries, “Roots and Shoots” empowers young people to identify problems within their own communities and take action, primarily as regards the environment and ecology.

With interviews and commentary by leading experts and Hollywood stars Angelina Jolie and Pierce Brosnan, known for their environmental activism, Jane Goodall’s story is quite inspirational. But as inspiring as it is, the film might have been more satisfying overall had the director had a more integrated focus on what, most likely, was Goodall’s gradual and organic awareness of how one thing, the chimpanzee research, led to a more global environmental awareness and need for action. ER

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