In the middle of a decade-long marriage that would end in divorce, world-renowned primatologist Jane Goodall and her then husband—documentary filmmaker and photographer Hugo van Lawick—immersed themselves in the remote forests of Gombe, Tanzania. Her mission was to continue her anthropological research on chimpanzees; van Lawick's was to capture it all on 16mm, as commissioned by National Geographic. The fateful endeavor resulted in Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees, an hour-long, Orson Welles–narrated documentary that Goodall "despised." According to director Brett Morgen, who's revived the footage in his new documentary Jane, she felt the film was "filled with filled with inaccuracies and completely rejected it at the time and to this day."
Fifty years later, Morgen has righted van Lawick's wrongs. Unearthing more than 100 hours of never-before-seen 16mm footage buried in the National Geographic archives, Morgen's documentary is a riveting effort in what he calls "re-appropriating found footage." Interwoven with recent Goodall interviews, Jane is at once sumptuous and intimate, with Morgen guiding viewers in and out of the headspace of his titular subject—as well as her husband and son, Hugo Eric Louis, who went by "Grub."
Although Goodall has been well-documented over the years, Morgen's knack for stripping subjects of their personas—Cobain: Montage of Heck, The Kids Stay in the Picture—makes Jane one of her most transparent and honest portraits. We spoke with Morgen about his constant fear of failure, struggling with being a great filmmaker (and a great parent), and why Goodall just might be the light we need in these dark times.
VICE: It took you eight months to comb through the archival footage, just to understand what you had. How are you staying sane?
Brett Morgen: Fear of failure is a powerful motivator, and we have to work our way through it. There's nothing demoralizing about going in circles and re-cutting—it was actually a brilliant exercise to find the language of the film. We had to find it, and we just kept working until we arrived there. We did one test screening of the film for about 50 people, and I felt incredibly relieved that people were just treating it like a film.
You've said about Jane, "Her work is the love of her life. It is not even a question. There was her work, and there was her mother."
It was a story that resonated with me in my life, and with a lot of artists. It's very difficult to be a great parent and a great artist, because both require full commitment. They're very difficult to reconcile. I'd never seen a film about a woman whose primary love was her work. Someone said to me today, "Isn't it sad toward the end when Hugo and Jane get separated?" I said, "Absolutely not. They both found their purpose in life." From the moment Hugo got there, Jane was being pulled away from the light. Once she and Hugo split, that's when she was able to arrive at what might be her greatest epiphany: that she was meant to go around the world and be a conservationist.
Would you rather be a great filmmaker or a great parent?
I don't know if that's up to me. I try to be the best I can be, but I very much understood Hugo and Jane in terms of Hugo's need to be on the Serengeti and Jane's need to be in Gombe. Fortunately for the two of them, Grub accepted that his parents had these unique gifts, and I don't think he would've wanted it any other way.
I saw him the other day, and someone was asking me about him, and I said, "I get the sense that he recognizes that his mother is out saving the world every moment of the day—not just for him, but for his children." Certainly, she's not doing it for herself, because her days are numbered. I don't mean that in a sad way: She's coming up in her years, but instead of retiring like most people, she's spent nearly every day selflessly working for you and me since 1986. It's a heroic story, particularly at this moment in time.
Why do you say that?
I feel that we didn't pick this moment—the moment picked us. There's an irony to the fact that we did our Los Angeles premiere as the Harvey Weinstein story was breaking that can't be overlooked. I was on the carpet at the Hollywood Bowl—a woman asked me about Harvey and the toxicity in our industry, and all of the sudden I look over to my right and see Jane walking toward me. It was clear that, in these dark times we're living in—both within our industry and politically and the world at large—how great is it that we have a light that can guide us? In this year of the woman—the year of Wonder Woman and the year of Patty Jenkins—how fortunate are we to have a real-life hero in our midst?
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