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Why Jane Goodall’s life story is the feminist documentary we've all been waiting for

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Christobel Hastings
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As a new documentary exploring the incredible life and work of British primatologist Jane Goodall hits cinemas in the UK, freelance writer Christobel Hastings takes a closer look at what her achievements mean for women now

If, in the early Noughties, you had asked me whether I’d heard of Jane Goodall – a bold, unapologetic female explorer who lived with chimpanzees in 1960 – I would have looked back in disbelief. 

Growing up, my weekends were filled with bad fashion, boyband dance routines, and (my real guilty pleasure) reruns of Michael Palin: Around the World in 80 Days, and David Attenborough’s The Blue Planet. My sister and I would sit cross-legged on the carpet, watching these “national treasures” venture to the furthest corners of the earth in search of natural wonder: lush rainforests, deep oceans and windswept deserts.

Thanks to the fourth wave of feminism, I’ve developed a keen eye for female representation. But back then, you couldn’t blame a young girl for believing that travel and exploration were a man’s world – female presenters were reserved for reality TV, and nature documentaries? Forget it. But whatever toxic gender stereotypes were still lurking in my mind were soon swept away when I watched Jane, a new documentary about the trailblazing primatologist whose chimpanzee research challenged the scientific consensus of her time.

The documentary, compiled from over 100 hours of never-before-seen footage that had lain undiscovered in the National Geographic archives, tells the story of Jane Goodall, a young secretary who packs up her typewriter and departs rainy England for the depths of the Gombe Stream National Park. Her mission is near impossible: to gather research on primate behaviour for the renowned Kenyan archaeologist and palaeontologist Louis Leakey, by observing and interacting with wild chimpanzees up close. 

In 1960, at a time when marriage and motherhood awaited most women, few could predict the revolutionary impact that one ponytailed 26-year-old was about to make on science.

Jane Goodall at work in 1974

We follow Goodall into the thick of Gombe, steadfast but frustrated as her attempts to get up close to the chimps are foiled. But she remains determined to accomplish what she has been sent to discover: scrambling through knotted branches, scaling steep valleys, sitting patiently in the undergrowth as chimps eventually creep closer to the tall blonde woman sitting in their midst.

The cycle of trying, failing and renewing her efforts to observe the chimp community, day after day, is a great testament to her tenacity, while her thoughts and observations woven throughout the narrative paint a picture of quiet courage. “Nothing is going to hurt me”, she writes in her journal. “I am meant to be here”.

Spurred on by her mother and travel companion, Vanne Morris Goodall, a remarkable woman who builds her daughter’s self-esteem as she nurses the local community, Goodall grows closer to the chimps with every passing day. By the time they make visits to her camp for bananas, she has given them names: Fifi, Flo, and David Greybeard, allowing her to develop a close bond and record behaviour in a way that accepted scientific doctrine may have missed. The hard work pays off: Goodall befriends the chimps and observes them making and using tools to eat termites – valuable evidence that they have minds and personalities, just like humans.

The groundbreaking discovery revolutionised our understanding of the natural world in the Sixties, but newspapers back home were anything but complimentary of Goodall’s incredible achievements. Column inches were dedicated to her “long legs” and “comely ways”, while male commentators sniped about her lack of scientific education. Undeterred, the documentary shows how Goodall defied her critics and used the spotlight to raise money for a research centre, allowing budding conservationists to help her collect data. Even better, she goes on to receive a PhD from Cambridge University, without ever gaining an undergraduate degree.

“Nothing is going to hurt me”, Goodall writes in her journal. “I am meant to be here”.

Of course the path – or in Goodall’s case, climb – to success never runs smoothly, and just as she makes her way into the chimp’s circle of trust, wildlife photographer Hugo van Lawick arrives on the scene to capture footage of the young woman for National Geographic. Van Lawick follows Goodall’s day-to-day movements and, she soon realises, she becomes an object of interest herself. Months of intimate footage reveal a romance blossoming before the camera lens, after which van Lawick departs Gombe with a proposal of marriage.

But this is not a traditional love story, nor a traditional family life that revolves around a man and his work. As van Lawick asks Goodall to leave the Gombe and join him as an assistant making nature films in the Serengeti, the age-old quandary of having to choose between family and work looms large. Goodall feels compelled to continue her work in Tanzania; sentiments echoed in a poignant letter from her mother, who encourages Jane to put herself first, and resist becoming a “complement” to her husband. Driven by her dedication to conservation, Goodall returns to Gombe without van Lawick, to continue her life’s work with her true love: the chimpanzees.

It is an emotional moment when, years later, we see Goodall travelling the world, delivering speeches about conservation and standing before audiences in rapturous applause. The transformation from quiet secretary to pioneering primatologist is complete; and we are left with the words ringing in our ears: “This was where I was meant to be”. 

As the films credits rolled, I finally realised this was the feminist narrative I’d been waiting all these years to see on screen: a woman who lived “out in the open, under the stars, watching the animals”.

Jane is out in the UK now

Images: Rex Features