New Jane Goodall documentary fills in some blanks left by an earlier biopic


Enlarge / Dr. Jane Goodall walking with local villagers and staff members of TACARE, one of the many programs of the Jane Goodall Institute.

A few years ago, National Geographic released a beautifully filmed biopic called Jane on famed primatologist Jane Goodall. The film helped explain how someone with no scientific experience ended up in Africa studying chimpanzees in the hope it would shed light on the origins of human behavior. But, despite a compelling story and restored archival footage, Jane seemed incomplete. While it told the story of how Goodall ended up both a scientist and a public figure, the scenes of her in the present day (to the extent pre-2017 resembles the present day) show that she’s left her research behind to become an advocate for conservation.

How she went from the researcher shown in Jane to the head of an international non-profit was left as an exercise to the viewer to figure out. So, I was excited to see that National Geographic had a follow-up documentary, Jane Goodall: The Hope, in the works. What follows is part review and part interview with Goodall.

For me, the hope was that The Hope would trace how Goodall managed the transition from researcher to international environmental advocate. Instead, the film simply gives a picture of what her life is like today, moving among her projects and following her hectic travel schedule. In that sense, the two documentaries act more like bookends on her career.

The Hope seems to be very conscious of its role as a potential closing chapter. There are several moments when either Goodall or those close to her talk about how she can’t keep up her present pace forever, and there’s one point when Goodall considers her own death. But in our conversation, she was anything but ready to stop. “There may be another phase [in my career], you never know,” she told Ars. And she was anxious to talk about upcoming projects, like a celebration of the 60th anniversary of the start of her research at Gombe National Park.

The film is sprinkled with lots of projects she’s involved in now, which operate under the umbrella of the Jane Goodall Institute. The Hope shows a number of these: her Roots and Shoots program for young people, a sanctuary for orphaned chimps, and a hectic speaking schedule that keeps her traveling nearly constantly. We asked Goodall about how she chose which projects she got involved with, but she said, “I don’t know that I do really choose—the Institute chooses many.” Those choices included the documentary itself, as Goodall admitted, “I wasn’t anxious to do another, but the Institute was.”

Goodall made clear, however, that that sort of structure was essential, as she felt that “there are so many things I need to help with.” As a result, she said there are now 24 national Jane Goodall Institutes, and 64 countries have a chapter of her Roots and Shoots program. We get to see her talking to Roots and Shoots members in the UK and Tanzania during the documentary, but the full scope of its activities aren’t apparent.

Roots and Shoots also plays a practical role: Goodall says the programs have planted as many as 4.5 million trees each year, which more than offsets the carbon emissions of her heavy travel schedule. We see a bit of that travel during The Hope and get a few incidental tips from Goodall on how to manage traveling light. She keeps it up because she feels a personal appeal can work for both general audiences and the business and political leaders that she wants as allies in her conservation efforts. When asked about the importance of reaching these different audiences, she told Ars, “I think we need to take every avenue we can,” and “We’re in such a mess with the climate crisis that I think [appealing to] both are important.”

“Why do they love me… ?”

The fact that she can make effective appeals to both leaders and the public in so many countries is astonishing, given the cultural differences in humanity’s approach to conservation. Goodall herself seems perplexed by it, saying, “I sometimes ask myself that—why do they love me in China, Malaysia, America, and the UAE?” The possible answers she shared during the interview—”The message about the chimpanzees appeals to everyone” and “I think people respect that I’m honest”—seem reasonable but fall short of explaining the thunderous applause she receives after some of her public talks.

Her family also makes some appearances in the documentary: a shared family home in the UK, and grandchildren in Africa. But, at least as edited into the film, her family members seem to view her with the same sort of respect that her collaborators do. If you go into the film hoping to learn more about her personal relationships, you’re not going to come away with much.

So, what are we to make of this series of partial glimpses into the life of one of the globe’s foremost primatologists and conservationists? The Hope isn’t very good at explaining how all of the structure that’s built around Goodall and enables her to have an impact came to be or presently operates. Neither does it explore any of her relationships in the sort of depth that would help us better understand what makes her tick—in many of ways, I felt I got more out of my 20-minute interview with her.

Among the things that jumped out at me during that interview: “I just go on being me and doing the best I can.” Being her, for Goodall, means that when she sees an issue that she cares about, she tries to solve it, and is genuinely hopeful that it can be solved. In her words, “Hope is probably the best way to combat what’s happening.”

When asked how she maintains that hope with a pandemic sweeping the world, she deferred to others: “If the doctors and nurse who are struggling to treat patients—if they didn’t believe their efforts would produce results, they wouldn’t bother to be there, would they?”

If you’re ready to share some of your social distancing time with someone who shares that belief, Jane Goodall: the Hope will be on the National Geographic Channel and streaming on Disney Plus.



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