As the new Disneynature film Chimpanzee opens today (our review), we had the opportunity to chat with Jane Goodall, the world's foremost expert on chimps. In an interview with CT film critic Steven Greydanus, Goodall talked about the film, the behavior of a species she has observed for decades, and a possible "spiritual side" to our primate friends. A portion of the film's opening-week box office proceeds will be donated to the Jane Goodall Institute.
What did you think of the film?
It's wonderful—really mindblowing.
How does it compare to other chimpanzee documentaries you've seen?
Well, it just puts them all in the shade. It's absolutely brilliant. It's a mixture of unbelievably good cinematography, fantastic behavior of the chimpanzees, the incredible feeling the filmmakers have got for what it's like to be deep in the forest, the spectacular views of the whole area from above. And then on top of all that, you've got this extraordinary story unfolding within the chimpanzee community—a behavior which is almost unheard of. It's an incredible film.
What misconceptions about chimps do you think people still have? Will this film help to correct any of them?
I think it will give people a real feeling for what it's like for chimpanzees out in the wild, and that will be new for most people. They'll come away totally in love with the infant [an adorable little one named "Oscar"] who's the star of the film, and moved by the tender side that emerges in the great big dominant alpha male. That's charming. They'll realize that underneath the tough exterior of a male chimp can be a tenderness which we've recorded on a number of occasions.
Although they'll fall in love with Oscar, people should also realize that he'll grow up to be like the leader of, quote, the "enemy" chimp community, and they won't think any longer about buying a baby chimp as a pet. At least I hope. And they'll realize that baby chimps belong in their communities, and how cruel it would be to take them away from their mothers.
People will also see how like us chimpanzees are, how they share many of our emotions, and the way they think. The way the young ones learn.
Some people felt the movie pressed the anthropomorphic angle too much—for example, the way it presented the two rival chimp groups almost as movie heroes and villains.
Yes, a lot of people have talked about that. And of course we don't know what is going on in the chimpanzee mind. People who know nothing about the chimpanzees might have been very confused if there weren't some commentary to help them understand, more or less in human terms, what was going on.
Maybe in places the commentary could have been toned down a little bit. But this is a film geared to the general public, including young people.On balance, I think [the narration] is okay, and some of it's quite funny. I think people who really understand [chimpanzees] will perhaps tolerate it, knowing that so many people wouldn't understand at all without the narration. On balance, I'm not unhappy.
In your study of chimpanzees, what has impressed you concerning their non-humanness—the ways in which they're unlike us?
The main difference, I feel, is the explosive development of the human intellect, which I suspect has been triggered in large part by the fact that we came up with this ability to communicate in the way that you and I are doing right now, with words. So for the first time a species is able to communicate about something which isn't present, make plans for the distant future, and discuss an idea. Chimpanzees cognitively can use human-like language; they have the ability to have developed a language like this, but as far as we know they haven't.