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

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.

RATING 6 / 10