Film & Television

“Jane”: Beautiful Creatures

Thrilling. Heartbreaking. Incandescently beautiful. These are not words generally associated with documentaries, but Jane, a new film about the work of Jane Goodall, evokes all these accolades and more. As a young girl in England, Jane dreamed of going to Africa. She did not aspire to marriage and motherhood—only to be an explorer and a scientist. From a middle-class family that could not afford to send her to university, Jane worked at menial jobs until she had saved enough to travel to Africa. Luckily for her and for us, there she met Louis Leakey, a world-famous paleontologist who took a chance on her and sent her to study chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania.

Thus began one of the most thrilling scientific journeys of the 20th century, one that continues to this day. Chimpanzees had never been studied in the wild before, and not much was known about their behavior outside of captivity. The film follows Jane as she spends months just observing them from afar, and more months after that when she sits silently waiting for the animals to grow trusting enough to come closer to her.

Once that barrier is broken, her research begins in earnest, as does her relationship with a small group of apes that live in the area. We get to know them, as Jane does, as distinct personalities, each with unique visages and quirks. There is David Greybeard, the clan elder, and Flo, the dominant female. Flo, with a prominent pug nose (for a chimp, that is), has two children, Fifi and a son, Flint, who is born during the course of the film.

Soon the chimps are so comfortable that they are raiding the researchers’ tents for food and helping themselves to their belongings as playthings. And Jane begins to make discoveries, including the thrilling observation that the animals use tools that they make out of sticks and leaves for hunting food. Previously, it was thought that only humans were capable of this.

Jane did not know this “law,” and she says that her lack of education actually helped her work because she approached the animals with no preconceived notions. Her deep affection for them becomes evident, as does her abiding respect for their broad emotional range. We witness the animals being playful, loving, and aggressive; nurturing their young, mating, laughing, and even crying.

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