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Jane, the new documentary from Brett Morgen (The Kid Stays In The Picture, Montage of Heck) is, more than anything, and like a lot of Morgen’s work, a pretty jaw-dropping feat of post-production. Working from 100 hours of once-thought-lost, recently (2014) found footage shot by the giant of wildlife cinematography Hugo Van Lawick, Morgen constructs a portrait of anthropologist Jane Goodall that has a surprising narrative drive.
The footage is astonishing: crisp, vibrant, immediate and beautifully framed. Van Lawick, while making the rules of wildlife filmmaking up as he went along, knew what he was doing. He not only captures the African region of Gombe and its chimpanzees with beauty and feeling, he does the same with Goodall, and it’s no surprise, seeing the way he shoots her, that he also ended up proposing to her.
She is certainly a magnetic, rather incredible, subject. Willowy and impenetrably calm, Goodall interacts with the chimpanzees she studies with an ease most human mothers can’t show their human children. Her thousand-mile stare as she watches an African sunset displays that ultimate and, for most of us, unreachable goal: the true peace of one who is doing exactly what they know they were put on this earth to do.
Morgen edits the footage to shape the narrative of Goodall’s career, rather than in the order it was shot. Thus, we are able to see Goodall in Gombe, through Van Lawick’s lens, well before Van Lawick actually arrives to film her. It’s a neat trick but worth knowing before you watch the film, lest, as I was, you spend too long wondering “Who shot this footage if no-one else is there?” Likewise, I assume that Morgen essentially started the soundtrack from scratch, as it is too perfectly continuous to have come from the original footage (indeed, I suspect Van Lawick was often shooting silently.
A lot of folk are up in arms that Jane is not nominated for the Best Documentary Feature at the 2018 Oscars. The answer may lie in a perception of the limitations of Morgen’s art; really, this is Van Lawick’s film as much as, if not vastly more than, his, and in many ways, Van Lawick becomes as central a figure as Goodall, even if he’s mainly hidden on the other side of the lens.