Jane Goodall

Interview by Julia Kidder / Photography by Bruce Weber

At eighty-four-years-old, Jane Goodall does not stop.

This October, before one of hundreds of film-festival screenings of Brett Morgan’s critically acclaimed biopic-documentary Jane, I sat down with Andria Tather (CEO of Jane Goodall Institute Canada) to discuss how the film has re-connected the public to the many-tiered love story that is Jane’s legacy. Their post-screening Q&A left me, and the entire audience, with a feeling of being taken alongside her breakthrough journey, like friends or co-conspirators, let-in on the true intentions behind what is now considered one of the greatest stories of advocacy and conservation of all time.

 Jane is comprised of archival footage, filmed by Jane’s first husband, Hugo Van Lewick, and interviews between Brett Morgan and Jane. Where Hugo’s gaze is loving and intimate, Brett Morgan’s technical mastery of archival-interview braiding is what truly makes it a seamless ode.

More than any nature documentary or biopic, Jane provides a certain cerebral tickling that may otherwise be reserved for moments of personal discovery. Jane Goodall shows us just how much potential exists when our inner-selves relinquish to the stimuli of wilderness. We step into her world as a young scientist and see how her time in Gombe launched her into stardom, and how it shaped the work her institutes carry out today.

Because, for many of us, these types of moments are so rare in our own lives, seeing Jane experience them brings a particularly hard-to-describe sense of melancholy. It leaves us longing for an imaginative wild forest place that we knew about, never visited, and that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. If that weren’t enough, Phillip Glass’ audio canvas soars delicately over forest murmuring, water droplets and chimpanzee cacophony – leaving us all slightly heartbroken by the beauty – wanting so much more from what feels like a tainted, unnatural world outside.

We watch as a barefoot Jane skips over vine-tendrilled streams in search of her initially standoffish chimps. As we know, the quality of her research – and Lewick’s documentation of it – urged a tidal shift in public perception around evolutionary links between chimps and humans while lifting the limitations placed on all female field-scientists that came after her. When renowned paleontologist, Dr. Louis Leakey, encouraged a twenty-six-year-old Jane to leave Britain and study the links between our Stone-Age ancestors and modern man, Jane’s determination to collect adequate data about a community of chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park meant imploring research techniques that were considered completely radical at the time.

This scientific love story shines as Jane’s methodologies evolve, and her disciplined and unobtrusive approaches wax poetic on screen. 

As her research made breakthroughs, Jane Goodall became a star. She became a household name at a time when a combination of proprietary philanthropy and celebrity-obsession was eroding well-intentioned public figures. Despite this, Jane remained the same person we see here, nature-obsessed and investigative, ethical backbone intact. She mastered the art of disarming attraction; as hoards of admirers flap in a frenzy of well-intentioned, but wide-eyed infatuation, Jane continues to gently nudge us to re-focus our gaze towards the work being carried out by her namesake institutes. By deflecting all of that attention, she forces us to see that they are far greater than symbolic totems for her own undeniable achievements.

Since founding the Jane Goodall Institute [JGI] in 1977, Jane travels nearly three hundred days a year to work closely with each JGI office in more than twenty-five countries around the world. She takes no speaking fees. This tireless commitment to protecting primates and their habitats has inspired millions of people around the world to become conservationists in their own right; equipping them with tools to examine nature’s intricate details, so that they may be better at defending them. International teams of Janes work tirelessly to increase protected habitats for primates, encouraging groups of young people to take conservation into their own hands through their Roots & Shoots programs. As Tather explains: “Motivating young people to engage with the natural world relies on supplying them with, in equal parts, a sense of urgency and patience.”

Jane Goodall and her thirty-four Institutes around the world have perfected a model for tangible change in the fight against species loss. Her sense of ethics is her greatest technique, seducing us into her network, creating an army of ecological enthusiasts, wielding a fierce arsenal of hope. Jane Goodall empowers us by giving us the equipment to make changes that are so urgently needed to protect the planet we love.

 When the lights came on, I looked around at an audience who appeared to have each just been personally delivered a ribbon-bound gift by Jane herself. When we meet Jane in person, she walks on stage to the type of clapping roar usually reserved for rock stars. It’s like we can’t help ourselves. We go nuts for her. As she talks about her pursuits as a young person—musing conversations animalia with Dr. Dolittle and fantasy dates with Tarzan—it’s apparent that her intuitive goodness is intact. Jane Goodall’s imaginary future-self was so intrinsically linked with the person she would become that hers is that rare story of being triumphantly un-corruptable. 

As our planet copes with the looming threat of climate change, mass extinction and biodiversity loss, Jane Goodall is still here to provide an antidote. She affords us a generous share of wealth, in a currency of ideas. She confirms our humanity as part of nature’s whole and the more she shares the story behind her commitment to protecting primates and their habitats, the more we fall totally in love with her. Proving that to her means that doe-eyed love letters won’t be enough.

To love Jane Goodall means demonstrating that we have learned the lessons she has spent her lifetime trying to teach us – by showing a great deal more devotion to the only planet we’ve got.

A special thanks goes to Andria Teather, Victoria Foote, Thalia Kornhauser and the Vancouver International Film Festival for their support.