Where's Rusty? Famed primatologist talks with Nonfictionfilm.com about 'missing' element from acclaimed doc
Jane Goodall is delighted with Jane, Brett Morgen's documentary about her early work as a primatologist studying wild chimpanzees in the forests of Tanzania.
"[Brett] showed it how it was," she observes simply. "It's an honest film."
But there is one thing she would have changed... a character she wishes had made it into the film.
"He refused to mention Rusty," she exclaims. "I don't know why. I mean it wouldn't have taken much, would it, just to mention it."
Although he's got photos, he refused to mention Rusty.
Now, to understand the significance of Rusty to Goodall, it's important to give the context of her reference to him.
We were talking in the lounge of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills about her experience making detailed observations of chimps in the Gombe Stream National Park in the early 1960s. She was dispatched there by archaeologist and paleontologist Louis Leakey, who looked past the fact she had no formal scientific training going into the assignment.
Goodall, in the minds of some, violated scientific protocol by giving names to some of the chimps she came into contact with -- 'David Greybeard' and 'Fifi,' for instance -- reflective of her observations that the animals possessed unique and discernible personalities and displayed emotion. The established scientific community at the time criticized her methods, and her conclusions.
"When I went to Cambridge I was told by these erudite professors, of whom I was nervous, that there was a difference between us and the other animals, a difference of kind and that I shouldn't have given the chimps names, they should have had numbers," she recalls. "I couldn't talk about personality, rational thinking and certainly not emotions."
Goodall didn't back down from her conclusions, despite the intimidating circumstances. Why? Because of Rusty.
She had witnessed personality and emotion in non-humans. She had seen it growing up -- in her dog Rusty.
"It was my dog Rusty who taught me that when I was a child," she told me. "I was able to stand up to the professors partly because of Rusty and partly because my mother had always supported me and given me self-confidence."
For that reason, Goodall felt Rusty merited a spot in the film.
"It was Brian Burke, the producer, who came and showed me the film the first time and I said, 'Tell Brett to mention Rusty.' And he didn't," she declares. "He's got photos."
I haven't asked Morgen about his decision not to mention Rusty in the film but I feel certain the reason is because it would have taken viewers out of Gombe -- to Britain where Jane grew up. It would have interrupted the immersive narrative.
To be sure Goodall loves the film, which is built around 140 hours of recently uncovered footage of the young researcher conducting her field work in the '60s. Morgen spent countless hours color correcting the film, part of an exhaustive process intended to allow viewers to see what Goodall saw and feel what she felt.
"And he's even got -- which I don't think most [directors] would do -- but I'm looking through my binoculars and he's showing a green forest with nothing. And that's how it so often was. But most people wouldn't show it that way," she explains. "They'd have a little bird or a lizard or they'd pick something, but he didn't... And that's the difference."
The archival film Morgen used as his source material was photographed by Hugo van Lawick, a Dutch filmmaker who was sent to Gombe to capture Goodall's work for National Geographic. Goodall and van Lawick were strangers to each other when he first arrived, but they would fall in love over the course of time. They eventually married and had a child they nicknamed Grub, who grew up partly in the Tanzanian forest.
After 10 years of marriage they divorced, pulled in separate directions by the demands of their respective work -- she in the field doing research, he traveling the world making films. Morgen sees Jane as a love story, "but not in the traditional sense. It's a not love story between a man and a woman. It's a love story between a woman and her vocation and a man and his vocation."
Goodall agrees, on the whole.
"It's various kinds of love stories, isn't it. It's love for the mother for her child. It's love, yes, for the work, which is really love of the forest," she tells me. "It's very strong, a spiritual sense that I get in the forest."
When I interviewed Dr. Goodall it was in December, after the Oscar documentary feature shortlist had been released -- a list that included Jane. She was hoping then the film would earn an Oscar nomination, which seemed a certainty to me.
"I desperately want it for Brett and [producer] Brian Burke because they've put their whole souls into it," she shared.
It wasn't to be, as Jane was shockingly omitted from the quintet of eventual Oscar nominees (the slots went to Icarus, the eventual winner for Documentary Feature; Faces Places, Last Men in Aleppo, Abacus: Small Enough to Jail and Strong Island).
In a phone conversation last month, she called the absence of an Oscar nomination for the film "absolutely weird. Everybody that I know is really angry and saying, 'What was the Academy vote thinking about?'"
We may never know but the answer to that, but perhaps far more importantly the film has a great admirer in Goodall, who sees it as superior to the many documentaries that have been made about her over the decades.
"It's different from all the others. Totally different," she insists. "And none of the others have actually taken me back into how I was. I mean it literally, I was that young girl again."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.