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Events: You Tarzan, She Jane

Omnimax film brings Jane Goodall (and her chimps) to life

By Brandon Brady · November 14th, 2002 · Events
  Jane Goodall at the Cincinnati Museum Center
Geoff Raker

Jane Goodall at the Cincinnati Museum Center

It all started with a loincloth. And not the one Johnny Weismuller wore. Seeing one of filmdom's earliest hunks in his signature role left a bad taste in the mouth of primatologist Jane Goodall. "That's not Tarzan!" she remembers saying when she first saw the jungle hero swing across the big screen.

Goodall had developed a concrete vision of the Tarzan character -- courtesy of the original source. As a young girl growing up in England, she was enraptured by the tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Fantastic adventures of a man raised by apes could only be escapist fare. For Goodall though, Burroughs' writing served a profound purpose. "That was when Africa really caught my imagination," she explains, speaking recently at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Her appearance coincided with the opening of the current Omnimax film, Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees, and the corresponding exhibit on display at the Cincinnati Museum Center.

In person, Goodall's eloquent British accent combined with her articulate intelligence might suggest an upper-crust mentality.

In truth, she's more of the salt-of-the-earth, Little House on the Prairie variety only with better clothes.

Goodall is Old Navy rather than Vera Wang, wearing a simple red turtleneck and khakis. The black-stone necklace adorning her neck, however, dispels the image of a plain Jane. The crudely beautiful accessory also serves as a touchstone to Africa, her adopted homeland.

On the Omnimax screen, Africa breezes by, courtesy of a camera-equipped fly-by. Various shades of green explode on the screen. It's a botanist's lush field of dreams far away from the gloomy dustbowl covering other parts of the continent. "To me, this is an enchanted forest: The Garden of Eden," Goodall, in her role as the film's primary narrator, says over the rich images.

It would be hard to disagree. Goodall quietly demands authority. Through her own eyes, she leads the way as the audience's Gandalf -- wise, powerful and all-knowing.

Archival footage of the young researcher in 1960 when she first arrived at Africa's Gombe National Park, though ill-fitting for the large format of the Omnimax, captures her initial, wide-eyed innocence and naiveté at being chosen for what would become a ground-breaking expedition.

"I was the least likely candidate for the job. I'd never even seen a chimpanzee," she says in the film.

She expands on the topic during the film's opening at the Museum Center. "I had no degree of any kind. My goal was to live with animals," she comments.

It's not the type of future a girl growing up in 1940s England likely envisioned. A housewife or high society matron would have been a far more common and likely existence. But Goodall had the enthusiasm to override the detriments of being a woman without a formal education. At least Louis Leaky thought so, proving his smarts in both matters of investigating science and judging character.

The combination of film and exhibition humanizes the myth that is Jane Goodall. Non-scientific minds might assign a vague importance to her efforts, believing her and Dian Fossey to be interchangeable entities. (They're not, for the record.)

Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees breaks through the haze, demonstrating how a woman knowing so little could discover so much. "Keep you eyes open and your mouth shut" was the mantra of choice of a different specimen (Danielle) in the high-glossed survival of the fittest, Big Brother 3. In the jungles of Gombe, Goodall adapted the same policy.

Weaving through the exhibit, into a jungle hideaway, past a re-creation of Goodall's camp, along a (figurative) family tree of Gombe residents and around enclosed mementos of the scientist's career, one grasps the breadth of her work. She discovered the politics, war, love and humor displayed by chimpanzees. She saw them fashion tools with which to eat. She served as overseer to a community closely tied to humans yet which remained far from understood.

It's full immersion into the world of Jane Goodall who appears again, in two-dimensional form, at the end of the exhibit. Sprawled in front of her is a quote: "Every individual matters. Every individual has a role to play. Every individual makes a difference."

Even an individual wearing a loincloth.

JANE GOODALL'S WILD CHIMPANZEES, presented by the Cincinnati Museum Center, continues through Feb. 14.


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