Goodall's unparalleled life

Goodall's unparalleled life

Goodall's unparalleled life

If you ever meet Jane Goodall and well up with overwhelmed joy, you won't be alone. "I make everybody cry," said Goodall, the primatologist and conservationist. "The Jane effect."

Tears have indeed been shed at Jane, a new documentary about her early life and accomplishments. It's based on more than 100 hours of footage, shot in the 1960s for National Geographic and hidden in its archives since. The cameraman was Hugo van Lawick, who arrived to document Goodall's life among the chimpanzees in Gombe, Tanzania, and left as her husband.

"It's like Marlene Dietrich and Josef Von Sternberg, this classic coupling," said Brett Morgen, the director of Jane.

Goodall, 83, has a dry sense of humour ("You grow from a baby to an old lady, and then you get older, or not, depending on how many face-lifts you have," she said) and a well-earned warmth.

"Can I give you a chimp hug?" she asked at the end of an interview in a Manhattan hotel in New York.

These are edited excerpts from the conversation:

Now you're used to attention, but early on, how did you feel about being observed yourself, in the same way you observed chimps?

I knew Geographic sent Hugo out to get what he could of the chimps but also to document me, and I wasn't happy particularly, but I knew we needed to get that - I needed Geographic funding. So, if Hugo wanted to film me washing my hair, so be it. I couldn't think why on earth anybody wanted to see me washing my hair. It turns out to be one of the most favourite scenes in the film.

The footage is beautifully composed. Were there moments when Hugo said, can you just move a little to the right?

Oh yes, it was nightmarish. I had to eat the same thing five times, redo everything. Luckily, one of the first jobs I had was in a studio in London, in the very old days, doing 35-millimetre stuff for advertisements, and I learned a lot of tricks. And so when these film-makers say, 'That was perfect, can we do it again?' I know why, whereas most scientists get so pissed off.

What was the experience like of watching the film, especially the start of your romance with Hugo and then the dissolution of your marriage?

I actually hadn't imagined that there could be anything new out of all that footage. So many documentaries have been made about me. Miss Goodall and the Wild Chimpanzees (the first one) was so inaccurate. Orson Welles narrated it, and so I got my lawyer, and Orson Welles had to re-record it.

When I saw this one, it just took me right back to who I was, in a different way. I loved watching the growing closeness between me and Hugo at Gombe, and the happiness of our wedding and the birth of our son. And it was healing to suddenly realise, with hindsight, how the end of our marriage was, in a way, inevitable - and for the information we both could share with the world, very important.


You always dreamed of going to Africa to study animals, but initially, you had no formal training or scientific background. Did you ever have any impostor syndrome, worrying that you weren't up to the task?



Not at all. When the chimps were running away, I was terrified the money would run out. I knew if I could have long enough,  it would be OK. I'm an obstinate kind of person, so challenges are to be met.


It was almost unthinkable for a young woman to do this job, but you never considered that an obstacle.

No, I wasn't brought up that way. Everybody else laughed at me, but Mom didn't. Women weren't scientists. When I was growing up, you could be a nurse, a missionary's wife, a secretary, and then, oh, how exciting, you could be an air hostess. A lot of people said to me, don't you want to be an air hostess? Looking back on it, being a woman in Africa was a plus because back then, it was just newly independent or moving towards independence, and white males were threatening and not liked by the Africans. But as a woman, they all wanted to help me. And this business about (being) the Geographic cover girl - it didn't hurt that I wasn't ugly. There wasn't any competition with males in that field because nobody was doing it. Sometimes being a woman, there's, you know (the suggestion from a superior), 'let's have a little fling'. And (if you say no, you worry) will that compromise your success in achieving your goal? Maybe I was lucky that it didn't work out that way.

Were you ever afraid?

Sometimes - when the chimps began to lose their fear, they became extraordinarily aggressive, and they're all eight, 10 times stronger than you are. They treated me like a predator like they would treat a leopard. So their hair's sticking out, and they're screaming, and they're up in a tree, swaying branches, hitting my head with it. Fortunately, while it was going on, I wasn't scared. I thought, 'Oh, it'll be all right, I'm meant to be here'. (I) dug little holes in the ground, ate leaves, didn't look at them, and indeed, as I hoped, they went away. It was afterwards, though, that my legs were all shaky.

The scientific method of observation is very different now; there is no contact between scientist and animal. Do you miss the closeness that you had?

I miss being in the forest. When I look at that film and think of the relationship I had with (the chimps) Flo and David Greybeard, it was magical, and it'll never come back. Nobody will ever do it that way again. I go back (to Gombe) twice a year, and I insist on one day when I'm on my own in the forest. But there are tourists and VIPs coming, and it's so different.

Is that bittersweet?

Well, in a way, if it was exactly like it used to be, I'd be even more miserable not to be there.

What are you afraid of now?

Not death, per se. Because it's either nothing, or something, in which case, that'll be very exciting. But I think one is afraid of getting decrepit and all that. (For the world) I think we've got to tackle poverty, the unsustainable lifestyle of the rest of us, and human population growth. Those three things, it's led to climate change and all the rest of it. We've got to make the change somehow, or else what'll it be like in 50 years? I'm afraid for my grandchildren's children.

What can we do to help this gloomy situation? I meet so many incredible people doing amazing things, saving animals on the brink of extinction, restoring the forest, cleaning up a river. It's knowing what can be done that gives people the courage to fight.

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