'Jane’s Journey': Insightful, Moving, Beautiful and Maddeningly Superficial

Lorenz Knauer presents Jane Goodall’s life as traditionally female, structured by marriages, sacrifice, and an act of reconciliation with her son.

Jane’s Journey

Director: Lorenz Knauer
Cast: Jane Goodall, Frodo, Hugo Eric Louis van Lawick, Judy Waters
Distributor: First Run
Rated: Not rated
Year: 2011
Release date: 2011-12-27

Celebrities Pierce Brosnan and Angelina Jolie appear in the new documentary biography about primatologist and environmentalist Jane Goodall, but share the end credits with chimpanzees Frodo, David Greybeard, and Gremlin. The clash of celebrity and natural worlds fills Jane’s Journey, an insightful, moving, beautiful, yet at times maddeningly superficial documentary.

Jane’s Journey follows Goodall as she travels the world in support of conservation projects sponsored by the Jane Goodall Institute, especially Roots and Shoots, which helps youth groups organize and carry out environmental efforts. In between stops, we learn about Goodall’s personal and professional life: her ground-breaking study of chimpanzees in Gombe National Park in Tanzania, her two marriages, her often strained relationship with her son, her switch from ethology to activism in the mid-'80s, and her tireless environmentalist pursuits since.

Archival footage and photographs of Goodall in the jungle, excerpts from home movies and family photos, and her present-day recitation of passages from the journals she kept in the '60s augment sequences of her return to Gombe, and her travels all over the globe. Writer-director Lorenz Knauer includes interviews with Goodall’s sister and son, as well as with colleagues from her research and activism.

It’s a remarkable story, beginning with her arrival in Africa in 1960 with “just pencil, a notebook, and passion”. Goodall calls what has happened since “magic”. A good part of the magic is Goodall’s ability to reinvent herself and her field of endeavor: first ethology, then activism.

Her original research among chimpanzees was sponsored by paleontologist Louis Leakey, who hoped that Goodall, who did not have a university degree at the time, would be free of pre-conceived notions. Whether or not his instinct was correct, Goodall did not disappoint. She soon observed chimps stripping sticks of leaves, then using them to fish for insects in their nests, the first evidence of tool-making and tool use among primates other than man.

Beautifully photographed by Richard Ladkani, Jane’s Journey includes spectacular nature footage—aerial views of Gombe, close-ups of chimpanzees, views of crumbling ice sheets in Greenland—and captures well the varied and exhausting travel schedule Goodall has maintained for the last 25 years.

Goodall shows the patience, grace, and poise that enabled her to study chimpanzee culture so closely, and to establish a rapport with the group strong enough that they accepted her as a member for a time. A scene in which she thanks her hosts at one speaking engagement by embracing them as a chimp would exemplifies how deftly she bridges the two halves of her career in order to establish connections that benefit her causes.

For all that, Jane’s Journey suffers from a lack of critical distance between filmmaker and subject. Goodall emerges as a magnetic personality who instills great affection and loyalty in friends and colleagues. Whatever bond formed between Knauer’s production team and Goodall over the long course of filming the documentary—Jolie observes how close the crew and Goodall grew—shouldn’t have prevented them from maintaining some degree of objectivity. It’s the dilemma of the documentarian, especially when the subject is a celebrity, a friend, or both.

Jane’s Journey omits any of the controversy that has arisen from Goodall’s work, from her nontraditional methods of studying primates in the wild (naming, not numbering animals; setting up feeding stations to attract them), to her break with animal welfare group Advocates for Animals over favorable comments she made about Edinburgh Zoo’s primate habitat. Giving Goodall the opportunity to address these critiques would have strengthened the film.

In fact, the breathtaking cinematography notwithstanding, Jane’s Journey works best when Goodall describes her life or explains her projects. A series of split-screen montages of Roots and Shoots efforts from around the world succeeds in showing the number and range of such programs, but we don’t learn about any specifics until we see a youth reporter from the initiative interview Goodall. This sequence, plus the short about Roots and Shoots included among the DVD extras, narrated by Goodall, explicate the initiative much better than the feel-good montages.

In recounting her two marriages (the first ended in divorce, the second with her husband’s death), Goodall underscores the jealousy and possessiveness of both her husbands. It’s hard not to see Knauer as a third man molding Jane in his own image—or even the fourth, if you count Leakey. His film makes her journey a very traditionally female one, structured by marriages, sacrifice, and an act of reconciliation with her son.

Just as Goodall uses the stuffed monkey she carries with her to charm those she meets and facilitate communication across linguistic and age barriers, so she undoubtedly uses the contours of the feminized narrative endorsed here by the filmmaker to advantage in advocating for her many causes. That the documentary doesn’t examine how this stance functions as a strategy, or more generally explicate the complexity of Goodall’s expert navigation of scientific and activist arenas is a great weakness.

The DVD extras do little to compensate for the shortcomings of the documentary. The Roots and Shoots promo is three minutes long, and the only other video extra is a brief interview with Jolie, which just provides more of the hero worship that the actress exhibits in the documentary.

As arduous as Goodall’s journey undoubtedly has been, Knauer has left out many of the bumps and detours that make up such a life, and make for a richer, more informative documentary.


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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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