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The nature films that ask us who we are and what we want to be

Two recent nature documentaries suggest that saving species from extinction means looking more closely at ourselves.

What is it that we’re after when we watch animals on film? Is it a sense of wonder at the otherness of their worlds - or surprise at their similarities to our own? The recent Blue Planet II series offered its audiences both; from the deep-sea’s fangtooth fish, to the wily octopus who outwitted a shark. Yet still, for some viewers, there was something missing.

For journalist George Monbiot, that something was a lack of detail about how we can reverse the present, catastrophic environmental decline: “We kept being told that everything could be better if ‘we’ change. But change what? Where? How?” he tweeted after the final episode.

For me, it was something less tangible. I not only wanted to feel awe and sympathy for this wide-eyed animal world, but to understand why I feel that way. Can animals feel these things too? And what exactly will be lost if their worlds disappear for good?

Thankfully the wider documentary food chain has been reaching into these murkier depths. In particular, a new documentary biopic, Jane, about the 83 year-old primatologist and UN Messenger of Peace, Jane Goodall, offers a tender and telling insight into what it is to be human — and suggests it is perhaps more animal than we’ve been led to think. 

The film’s archive footage, arranged by director Brett Morgan and sublimely scored by the composer Philip Glass, re-tells the story of Goodall's life; starting with her decision, aged just 26, to travel to the Tanzanian jungle to study chimps.

Tall, blond and dressed in practical khaki shorts and a white shirt, we watch the young Jane pick her way through the jungle thicket. Her clambering movements are both self-assured and slightly awkward, as if conscious of being closely watched. Yet there is nothing tentative about her discoveries, which went on to prove that humans are not alone in their ability to make tools, experience complex emotions and even wage war.

Breaking the scientific consensus around these issues was far from easy, we discover, but she persisted: “The more I learned, the more I realised how like us they were,” her voiceover recalls.

And just as Jane's research rests upon relationships, sensitivity and openness, so too does the film.

As the story unfolds, we watch Jane fall for Hugo van Lawick, the wildlife filmmaker whom National Geographic sent to document her work. The two animal-lovers soon start an unorthodox family together after Jane gives birth to a baby boy, living among the chimps at her research centre in Gombe National Park. And when Jane starts taking child-rearing tips from Flo, the alpha female in her study, it seems as if the two storylines – Jane's and the chimps’ - have finally converged.

Another convergence is that between Lawick's vision and our own. As his camera watches Jane who watches the chimps, the film creates a powerful reminder of the close ties between loving and looking; of paying attention to something to the point of deeper understanding and connection - even if, like Hugo and Jane's, those relationships don't always work out.

The film also avoids falling foul of the mistake made by much of the press at the time — which focused too much on Jane, and played up her looks at the expense of her credibility.

Instead, it slowly and subtly shifts our attention to the chimp family; not conflating non-human with human, but recognising their equal claim to selfhood. In fact by the time the credits roll, it is their triumphs and traumas, even more than Jane's, which carry the film's emotional might.

Some may quibble that Jane does not, as with Blue Planet, spend enough time looking at the multiple threats that chimps now face, from deforestation and poaching, to climate change. But its storytelling may yet make better political animals of us all, and the film is now the first National Geographic documentary ever to be nominated for a BAFTA.

It contrasts sharply with the approach taken by another recently released documentaryThe Last Animalsby war-photographer Kate Brooks, which tackles the harm humanity is doing to the natural world head-on.

Brooks' film is a brutally direct examination of the rise of the modern poaching crisis, from the international poaching and trafficking syndicates who run the illegal trade, to the park rangers who risk their lives to stop them. 

The statistics behind the film are terrifying: the West African black rhino is already extinct, and there are only 400,000 African elephants, the largest creature to walk the earth, left in the whole continent; down 60 per cent since 2002.

But despite it's more direct approach, The Last Animals shares Jane's insights into the human sides of the story.

At one point, Professor Wasser, a forensics expert at the University of Washington, nearly breaks down on screen as he shows Brooks a cabinet filled with thousands of tiny plastic jars, each one containing the DNA from the ivory of a dead elephant. 

In another scene, a group of conservationists attempt to protect a rhino from poachers by sedating it and cutting away its horn — but the animal responds badly and dies, leaving those involved visibly distraught.

Most unbearable of all, is the death of four park rangers at the hands of a poaching gang during the course of the film’s production. To have someone there and then simply not is the cruel truth of the crisis for animals and humans alike.

Yet the film is also far from hopeless. Professor Wasser’s forensic science is already helping to bring the trade’s criminal networks to justice. “We need to stop the killing - and while curbing demand [for ivory] is critical, it is far too slow,” he explains to me over the phone. “We need to be focusing our efforts on law enforcement and getting to these products before they go to transit.”

Speaking in a Q&A at Bloomsbury Curzon, the director Kate Brooks also encouraged the audience to visit a website which gives details of the UK government’s recent consultation on a full ivory ban.

The lesson from these two evnironmental films is not necessarily that that a human-focus always works: a recent documentary called Trophy, about the appetite for big-game hunting, risks gawping at the hunters’ behaviour and not properly interrogating the industry’s position and facts.

But as the BBC promises a new landmark wildlife series, following animals in their family groups, they will hopefully not squeeze the human side of the story too far out of shot.

As much as they open a window on the animal world, great nature films must also ask who we are and who we want to be. As both Jane and The Last Animals suggest, saving species from extinction may depend on looking more closely at ourselves.

Jane is currently in cinemas and will be screened on the National Geographic Channel on the 12th March.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.