Companion Species

Catherine Pond in Avidly:

JaneBret Morgen’s Jane opens on a shot of Gombe. Culled from 140 hours of footage shot by Goodall’s ex-husband, photographer Hugo van Lawick, the movie captures Jane in her mid-twenties, lithe and excitable, her movements set to a lush Phillip Glass soundtrack. Morgen’s film suggests a dual love story: that of Jane as she falls in love with Hugo, and that of Jane as she falls in love with the chimps around Lake Tanganyika. The love affair with Hugo ends after they have a child together: he wants to be on the Serengeti; Jane can’t tear herself away from Gombe. But her love for the chimps endures. Though it seems obvious to us now, the movie highlights the novelty of Jane’s experiences: she is the first, ever, to live among the chimpanzees and record their behavior. After witnessing their great empathy, their ability to nurture and sympathize with each other, and their communal lifestyle, Jane believes the chimpanzees not only to be human, but to be better than human — not our companion species, but our superior species. Humans, she reasons, have war, and bloodshed, and an endless need to inflict pain and conflict on themselves.

Goodall is primarily concerned, in the early years captured by the movie, with a community of chimps centered around alpha male David Greybeard. The lone female of the group, Flo, captures Jane’s interest as well. For a while, Jane observes, interacts, and records the individual personalities of these spectacular primates. In the second half of the footage, though, tragedy strikes: Flo dies, leaving her children and the male chimpanzees bereft. And Jane witnesses something that undoes her prior understanding of the species: the male chimps devolve into violence.

By the end of their warring, one-third of the male chimps in the community lie dead in the river, limbs sprawled, as Goodall looks on with eyes the color of milk: glossy, tear-filled, she turns away from the camera. Her disappointment is far greater than if she had never assumed the goodness of the chimps in the first place: it is, in fact, not disappointment at all, but deep grief. I do not know what it was, for Jane, that restored her faith in the chimpanzees. I do not know how, after that blow, she regained her respect for them, but she did. Her love, though challenged, did not waver, despite witnessing for the first time the violence they were capable of, how in this way, too, they were like the humans she’d sought to avoid.

…In an excerpt from the 2015 New York Times article ‘Jane Goodall is Still Wild at Heart,’ author Paul Tullis describes Goodall’s realization in the early 90s that “there would be no…habitat” for her chimps “if poverty continued to force a growing human population to chop down trees for farmland and firewood. [It] convinced her that the chimps’ lot could not improve until that of the people living near them did.” Thus began “an abrupt career shift, from scientist to conservationist.” Suddenly, Jane’s work bridged an interesting gap.

More here.