At this point, it’s hard to imagine a better mainstream documentarian that operates almost purely through archival footage than Brett Morgen (Montage of Heck, The Kid Stays in the Picture). His newest doc, Jane, encapsulates the life of the titular Jane Goodall through a treasure trove of recently discovered and unseen footage. As someone who is relatively unfamiliar with Goodall and her accomplishments outside of the obvious relation to primates, Jane is not only an incredibly informative work, but an, at times, moving one as well.
The assembled footage is briskly edited, yet concentrated when it matters. The flow of imagery and emotion is delicately and beautifully managed through Morgen’s concise direction and writing, Joe Beshenovsky’s editing, and legendary composer Philip Glass’ mammoth score. While the construction of a narrative via a life’s worth of footage isn’t hard to conceive, it’s the ways in which the film maneuvers that makes it profound experience.
As much of a composition as it is a film, Jane works in movements. Each era or event delineated by a heavily emotive Philip Glass arrangement, allowing the construction of an identity – rather than just a figure – to be carefully orchestrated in front of our eyes. The links between Goodall and her subjects are presented in a reciprocal manner. It’s a documentary largely about observation and the knowledge one gains from it. Meaning that, we view Jane as she views the chimpanzees, in a flowing of gaze that prompts us to consider the primates in the same regard as her. As she studies, so do we, and through her findings of the primate, glimpses of who Goodall is are put together as well.
However, with such a reflexive study, the downfalls of Goodall as well her chimpanzee counterparts illustrate the aching humanity of it all. Even in remote Gombe, away from the ails of society, Goodall finds herself gripping with various pains: marriage, motherhood, and mortality. As Goodall comments during one of the interview segments, death does not hide in the jungle. Whether it’s animals consuming each other, or a young chimp that dies from heartbreak, there are no closed doors, no societal constructs to disguise the harsh reality of death. Perhaps one of the most striking concepts in the doc, as it is one of the major distinctions – outside of language – that separates humans from the animals. However, it also posits that every human advancement is merely another distraction from death, thus questioning – who is more alive?
In digression, while the footage, mostly shot by famed nature photographer and Goodall’s once husband, Hugo van Lawick, is striking and at times visceral – it’s hard to ignore some of Morgen’s questionable stylistic decisions. In the more dramatic primitive moments, whether it’s a chimpanzee raid or a war waged between chimps, Morgen switches the already slightly saturated color footage to a stark monochrome. This, along with a drastically artificial sound design - which at times includes animal noises in synch with the score - detracts heavily from the natural rhythm to everything. Which isn’t to say that jarring transitions aren’t effective, but it’s such a disruption in the established order of things that it distracts more than evokes.
Ultimately, Jane is a powerful, poignant, and sweeping doc about history’s great primatologist. Through Morgen’s astute direction and one of Glass’ most remarkable cinematic scores in quite some time, Jane is a documentary that, much like its subject matter, is destined to succeed even with its share of issues.