One of our favorite new films of 2017 was Jane, by Brett Morgen. We had the pleasure of screening the film in New York at DocNYC and Amsterdam at IDFA, where we also held a talk with Brett about his work on the film.
With Jane, Morgen, the award winning director of Cobain: Montage of Heck and Chicago 10, has once again produced an archive-driven film that is unique cinematic in its approach and how it brings the world of its subject to life. One critic said, “He makes films that feel like extensions of his subject matters, channeling their creative spirit in the form of his filmmaking more than just detailing what happened in their lives.” His recent work on Jane – recently shortlisted for an Oscar by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – takes this approach to whole new levels – and required unique ways of dealing with archive material.
Jane not only tells the story of the discoveries Dr. Jane Goodall made and her contribution to understanding chimpanzees and their similarities to humans, but also tells the story of her romance with Hugo van Lawick, the Dutch filmmaker sent by National Geographic to Gombe in the 1960s to film and document her study, and from whose angle of view we see Jane at various points throughout the film.
“I think it’s a love story, but not about Jane and Hugo,” Morgen told Point of View Magazine. “I think it’s a love story about a woman and her work, and about a man and his work. Because the real love, the transcendent love in the film, is their work. And the reason, I think, that at the end of the film people are smiling or crying, not of sadness, out of a life well lived, and at where Jane arrived at, is because she’s doing what she wants to do and making the world a better place, and Hugo did what he needed to do and made the world a better place. That’s a very strong distinction.”
In the production of Jane, Morgen had the privilege of working with such unique material as National Geographic’s archive of footage from their early expeditions with Jane Goodall. However, this privilege came with the job of screening and re-ordering 140 hours of mixed-up footage. As Nat Geo had initially intended to use the material in a 1965 TV special, what is left had been cut up and was given to Morgen and his team in a series of scrambled reels.
Morgen described the process of having pause production to have his team categorized the footage in order to be able to piece together places and chronology and sequences of events. This was not only necessary to understand the narrative shape of the story, but also to be able to tell it in the most immersive way as possible.
“It was a total disaster,” he said in an interview. “There were no camera rolls, continuity, sound elements, nor were there notes to aid us in identifying the chimpanzees. Hugo photographed over 160 chimpanzees during his time in Gombe and there were only 5 or 6 that we were interested in. Finding and identifying them was a challenge none of us were prepared for. We shut down production for several months while a team of assistants and interns grouped the footage into manageable categories to be screened.”
Morgen’s use this treasure trove of archive footage went beyond merely using it as documentary evidence to illustrate the interview he filmed with Goodall. His approach in the edit and his liberal stance vis-a-vis color correction created a unique chronological tension between creating a proximity to the images from Goodall’s expeditions that we might feel with events occuring today, and the distance of time and the life experience of a much older, wiser Jane.
Though so much has been written by Jane Goodall herself and others about her work and those early expeditions, Jane is unique it its rendering of her story in filmed images that span 50 years of Goodall’s life and work.
“I think without reading, when you start looking at the footage, you wouldn’t know what you’re looking at without having done that initial research,” he said in a workshop on filmmaking with archives at IDFA organized by Archive Valley. “But, my goal in a movie is to do what you couldn’t have done in a book… If I’m doing the history of this subject, it’s going to be unique to cinema, and I’m going to do things you can only do in cinema.”
Premiering at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on October 9 of last year, the film is out in Europe since December 28th. Visit National Geographic’s website for more info and upcoming screenings.