Good films have been scarce this summer, but now we have a river of great choices. In particular, two outstanding documentaries have just opened: Jane and Faces Places. The first, Jane, is about Jane Goodall, who as a 23-year-old secretary to Louis Leakey, went to East Africa to observe and study chimpanzees in the wild. With neither academic background nor training, she was motivated by a love of animals and a curiosity about a world very different from London and Cambridge. Leakey, along with his wife Mary, had become famous for their extensive discoveries of prehistoric man in Africa and felt that studying primates in the wild would give clues to early man’s behavior. Goodall moved to Gombe, Tanzania, on Lake Tanganyika, where a large colony of chimpanzees lived in a reserve. She set up in a tiny jungle camp, initially with her mother because the Tanzanian government insisted on a chaperone because they felt it unsafe. She spent months just trying to see the chimpanzees, who were initially very reclusive. Although she would occasionally spot one of two, they remained mostly hidden until eventually her willingness to remain in a spot for hours lured the chimpanzees to approach her. Goodall proved a very patient and skilled observer, and soon saw striking differences in appearance and behavior among the individual chimpanzees. She named them, calling one David Graybeard, for his distinctive grey beard, and another Flo, the dominant female, then nursing her baby. Flo proved to be an able and affectionate mother, and Goodall followed her for the rest of Flo’s life. Eventually the chimps accepted Goodall, and lured by bananas, came into camp. She became so accepted by the chimps that she could groom them and the babies would hold her hand. Her observations were revolutionary. She showed that these primates were behaviorally far closer to humans than ever imagined, exhibiting love and affection, as well as anger, depression and grief, and building family bonds that lasted lifetimes. In an observation that stunned biologists, she showed that chimps routinely make and use tools. But they showed the darker side of human behavior too: cruelty and warfare against other groups of chimps, even to the point of death.
Director Brett Morgen, a well known documentary film maker (Kurt Cobain, 2015) has brilliantly crafted Jane, largely from recently uncovered footage of Goodall’s early work in Gombe, discovered in National Geographic archives. We see contemporaneous Jane commenting on her life and on the archival footage, which, in both black & white and early color, is riveting. Much was shot by an equally brilliant photographer, Hugo van Lawick, who came to Gombe to document Goodall’s work and ultimately fell in love with her. They married and reared their son, Grub, in Gombe. Goodall credits Flo with having showed her how to be a good mother. Eventually van Lawick and Goodall divorced when he left Gombe to film in the Serengeti, where he became famous for his extraordinary photography. The two always remained on good terms. This is a fascinating and moving story, into which Morgen has packed so much into just 90 minutes. To add to the genius, Phillip Glass composed the music, which is gorgeous. I bought the soundtrack and can’t stop listening. I loved Jane and think it likely to win best documentary film at the Oscars. The cinematography, both archival and contemporary, is spectacular and must be seen on the big screen. Unfortunately, here in the city, it is showing only at the Kabuki, but also in Marin at the Rafael and in Berkeley at the Shattuck.
The second film, Faces Places, is directed by the legendary French director, Agnes Varda, who is now 88. Here she and JR, a photographer 64 years her junior, travel in JR’s van to small villages in France, stopping to photograph interesting, but ordinary people, rooted in their towns. His van, with the photo of a huge camera pasted on its side, is equipped not only with camera, but also a printer, which turns out portraits in monumental scale. The genius of this undertaking is that the two then paste the huge photos on the sides of buildings connected to the subject of the portrait. Their first stop is a row of abandoned miners’ houses in which only one person remains. The houses are slated to be razed because of the closing of the mines (sound familiar?), and Jeanine is the sole holdout preventing demolition. They take her picture, print it about 20 feet high, then post it on the front of her house. It’s both wonderful and utterly unexpected. The pair visits three farmers, two of whom raise goats, and a third who singlehandedly farms 2000 acres with enormous modern equipment complete with precision GPS controls. The later’s photo goes on the front of his barn. Then onto a mailman and others. Photos of Varda’s eyes end up on two railroad tank cars, huge fish on a water tower, and the wives of three longshoreman on a enormous wall of shipping containers. These outsized portraits celebrate and memorialize those who are too often forgotten. Of course the cinematography is splendid; nearly every scene a great still in itself. Obviously, this is a must-see on the big screen. Rich, sweet, joyous and poignant, Faces Places is marred only by the near certainty that it may be Varda’s last film, a wonderful farewell to a lifetime of great work that has influenced countless filmmakers. Running time: 90 minutes. Just opened at the Embarcadero, the Rafael and the Shattuck. Ciao, Ian
By Ian Berke