Jane Goodall has talked about her life and her work with the chimps in Gombe more times than she, or anyone else, can count.
With Jane, the documentary making its broadcast premiere March 12 on National Geographic, she takes a much more personal look back. She discusses her research as well as her inspiring childhood courtesy of her supportive mother, her marriage, her own approach to motherhood, and more.
Director Brett Morgen constructed the film from more than 100 hours of footage by famed National Geographic photographer (and Goodall’s ex-husband) Hugo van Lawick, footage that was forgotten for decades until it was discovered in Nat Geo’s archives in 2014.
Jane debuted in theaters last fall to rave reviews, and now it has the chance to reach a wider audience as it hits TV screens. In addition to sharing a clip from the documentary featuring Goodall discussing her mother’s role in her early days in Africa, EW called up Goodall to discuss her thoughts on the film, what convinced her to sign on to another documentary about her life, and whether she still finds inspiration in the children’s book characters of her youth.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve been part of so many documentaries, and several specifically about your life and your work in Gombe. What was it about this one that made you eager to revisit that time in your life?
JANE GOODALL: Quite honestly, when it was proposed to me by [National] Geographic, I said, “Come on, you can’t seriously want to do another film about Jane and the chimps?” We’ve had so many. I was persuaded to agree by the Jane Goodall Institute because they said, “It’ll be good to have it out there. It will be more publicity to help us with our fundraising for our project in Africa.” They said, “By the way, it will only be a three-hour interview; you don’t have to do anything else,” and so I agreed. Then they approached Brett Morgen and he said, “Another film about Jane and the chimps? Come on.” But then they showed him the footage, and he was smitten. So what it is that makes it different? I literally feel back there. All those chimps are familiar to me. There they are, alive on the screen again. It’s less contrived than the other documentaries, partly because it’s my own voice. Brett Morgen took the commentary from the audio recording I did for [my book] Reason for Hope, so it’s the feelings I had at the time, voiced by me and not somebody else. It goes through more of my personal life — Grub when he was a baby, I’d forgotten quite how cute he was. Seeing Mom in the camp and all the nice things said about her, it just is a very different experience.
This was crafted from rediscovered footage. What was it like seeing it after all this time?
It was the same vintage as that from which Geographic made their [original] films, so it wasn’t really new in the way some people think it might have been. It wasn’t a chunk of footage that was taken and forgotten about. It was a chunk of footage that was set aside after the Geographic had made a couple of films from it. This film has material that wasn’t in the others, but it’s from the same vintage.
This film also pays such wonderful tribute to your mother. Would you say she taught you about the type of woman you wanted to become? Beyond that, how did she impact your life and set you up to be the extraordinary person you are?
When I was a child and loving animals, she supported my love. She didn’t get mad when I took earthworms in dirt into to my bed to study them. She didn’t scold me when I scared the entire family by disappearing for four hours. I’d been hiding in the henhouse to see where the egg came out of the hen because I couldn’t work it out. She got books about animals, thinking I would learn to read more quickly. And then I met Dr. Doolittle and Tarzan in books, and decided I would grow up and go to Africa and write books about them. That’s when I was 10. Everybody laughed at me, but she said, “If you really want this, you’re going to have to work really hard, take advantage of opportunities and don’t give up.”
A different kind of mother might have crushed the scientific curiosity by getting angry when I followed my passion to watch things. She agreed to volunteer to come to Africa with me because I wasn’t allowed to be alone by the British authorities, and she did that clinic. When I came back depressed because I hadn’t found any chimps or been able to get close, she was there to boost my morale by saying that I was actually learning a lot about them from a distance and I shouldn’t be too upset. She was just supportive of everything. When Grub had to go to school, it looks a little bit as though I callously left him, but he was part of the family. He was with Mum. I wouldn’t have abandoned him otherwise. He wasn’t abandoned; he was just nurtured by another piece of the family.
You say in the film that you wanted to be like Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle growing up. Are you still a fan of those characters now?
Well, I recently reread some of the Dr. Doolittle books, and I still love them. The Tarzan book, no. I find there’s too much killing in it. At the time, that was the sort of things we read. Everything we read was about hunting and killing, and of course I didn’t want to hunt and kill. I didn’t pick those bits out about Tarzan. What I loved about Tarzan was his relationship with the animals, not that he had to fight lions and kill them.
You said you’ve never been in any one place for more than three weeks since 1986. What is it about that lifestyle and constantly being on the go that you enjoy? Have you ever thought about slowing down?
What makes you think I enjoy it? I can’t stand it. I do not want to live this sort of life. … The reason I do it is because we’ve now got Jane Goodall Institutes in 34 countries. They all want me to visit. They all want me to help them raise funds for their Roots & Shoots programs, and so I’m constantly living out of a suitcase, hotels, airplanes. It’s horrible, and I don’t have time for writing anymore. As for slowing down, it’s the opposite. As you get older, there’s less time ahead of you. You don’t know how long it is, and so I have to speed up rather than slow down because there’s still so much to do. Look at the mess the world’s in.
How much do you think our understanding of not only chimps, but all animals, has changed from when you first began your research?
One of the key things is that science was rejecting the fact that animals have personalities, rational thought, minds, intelligence, and emotion. I was told it was a difference in kind between us and the other animals. That was what was being taught in 1962 when I went to Cambridge. Luckily, I had this teacher when I was a child that was my dog Rusty — you can’t share your life with any animal and not realize the professors who told me that we were the only beings with personality, mind, and feelings were clearly wrong. Because the chimps are so like us biologically, as well as behaviorally, science has gradually come out of this narrow-minded way of thinking about our relationship with animals. As soon as that happened, the door was wide open for people to investigate intelligence and emotions in all sorts of other animals. Today it’s a fantastic opportunity if you’re a young student wanting to study animal behavior. You can study intelligence in birds, in octopus, even in insects, and it’s not laughed at anymore.
You continue to be such an inspiration all over the world, particularly for young women. What do you make of that, and has it ever been something that feels intimidating or like a lot of pressure?
No, I’ve realized I’ve been lucky in my life. I worked hard, but it was also luck that played a part, like I say in the film. The stars played their part as well as hard work. Because of the advice my mother gave me and how much it’s helped me, I love taking that around the world and sharing it. I was lucky enough to meet Leakey and get the chimps as my subject, which fascinate everybody. They get drawn in because they love to see about the chimps, and then they learn my story. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “You’ve taught me because you did it, I can do it too.” So I love taking that message around, particularly in disadvantaged communities and to the developing world and inner cities and so on.
If people want to get involved in conservation after viewing the film, what are some of the best options for them to help?
A lot of people understand that we’re truly, truly damaging the planet, but they feel helpless. They don’t know what to do. The main message to ordinary, everyday people is that each day you live you make some kind of impact. If you start thinking about the consequences of the little choices you make — what you buy, what you eat, what you wear, where does it come from, how is it made, did it harm the environment, does it involve cruelty to animals, do you actually need this thing? How do you interact if you see a little bird at the side of the street? Being bothered to water a little plant that’s dying? All these little, tiny things may seem insignificant if it’s just you doing it, but you realize there are millions of people all around the world who feel as you do and they’re making ethical choices. … If everybody is doing their best in whatever position they’re in to make a difference every day, they’re going to make a huge difference.