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On July 14, 1960, Jane Goodall, a 26-year-old London debutante turned secretary with no university degree, scientific experience, or training in the field, embarked upon a lifelong dream. Her boss, Kenyan paleoanthropologist Dr. Louis Leakey, sent her to conduct a pioneering study of chimpanzees in Tanzania, “with the hope that a better understanding of chimpanzee behavior might provide us with a window on our past,” she later remembered. She took along binoculars, a notebook, and her 54-year-old mother, Vanne Morris-Goodall. Two years later, National Geographic dispatched a 25-year-old wildlife cameraman, Baron Hugo van Lawick, to record Goodall’s work. The chimps, at first distant, were soon taking bananas out of Jane’s hands. All of this was captured on 140 hours of 16-mm. film, which was then lost for 60 years in the vast National Geographic archives in its underground Iron Mountain storage facility, outside Pittsburgh.

“It felt like watching the moon landing when I saw [the footage],” says Brett Morgen, who has directed documentaries on film producer Robert Evans, Kurt Cobain, and the Rolling Stones. “Jane’s work would also go on to challenge and help redefine the very idea of ‘man.’ ” Morgen combed through miles of random footage to create the magnificent documentary Jane, airing on the National Geographic Channel beginning March 12. As he explains it, “We witness a young woman enter a jungle and essentially commingle with a tribe of wild chimpanzees . . . apes that were capable of killing her at any given moment.”

To see the young Goodall in Jane, in khakis and blond ponytail, is to watch an epic animal-rights activist being born. In the closing scenes, we see that the young woman has become the empress of the wild—Dr. Jane Goodall, now 83, “the world’s leading expert on primatology and perhaps the most recognizable scientist in the world,” says Morgen. “Jane is a film about female empowerment, about a woman who refused to be silenced by the structural opposition of her time. . . . In many ways, it’s a modern-day superhero film. But unlike Wonder Woman or Spider-Man, our protagonist is real, and we’re all the better for it.”

Get Vanity Fair’s HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Mark SealMark Seal joined Vanity Fair as a contributing editor in 2003.

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