Thursday, 2 February 2012

Film Review | Project Nim, dir. James Marsh

In 2008, filmmaker James Marsh won an Oscar for his startling documentary Man on Wire. An unsentimental record of "the artistic crime of the century," as perpetrated by Philippe Petit, it told the tale of a daring tightrope walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, and so powerful was this strange story that as the credits rolled I resolved to follow Marsh to the ends of the earth, if in his next non-fiction narrative he felt it necessary. With my breath baited, I've been waiting to see where he'd spirit me away to ever since.

Marsh's subsequent subject is a guerrilla of a very different description: namely a chimp named Nim. In the 1970s - in the same period during which the events chronicled in Man on Wire occurred, in fact - Nim was the subject of a sensational experiment whereby he was taken from his monkey of a mother and placed with a human family, to be treated as if he were indeed a human child. In short, it was The Jungle Book backwards... or rather, it was supposed to be.

The ostensible aim of Project Nim was to test the nature versus nurture hypotheses that had such cultural currency in those halcyon, hippie-dippy days. The leader of the team, Professor Herb Terrace, was a primate specialist out of Columbia University, with a particular interest in the question of communication: could a chimp, raised by people, lean to articulate - via sign-language - his needs and feelings in the same way a human would?

As it happened, the answer to the aforementioned question was not so straightforward as either yes or no, so when his study had run its course, Terrace simply washed his hands of Nim, to the dismay of everyone involved in the experiment, and equally, decades later, the unadulterated disgust of all those viewers of this Academy Award-shortlisted documentary.
Project Nim narrates Nim's life from birth to death, and it is thus a real tear-jerker. At times, Nim appears more man than animal, meanwhile those "scientists" who surround him, many of whom Marsh has interviewed for this film, seem more animal than man. A very few are perfectly pleasant: most notably Bob, a sweet soul who cared for Nim in the last years of his life, and one of the couples under Terrace's dubious direction, but the only character (as such) to rival our main monkey is the aforementioned Professor, and he is no hero; oh no.

Indeed, if there's a villain of the piece then it's him, and make no mistake. Marsh does take Terrace to task on a number of occasions - over his shocking treatment of Nim, first and foremost, but he also goes so far as to ask whether Terrace had affairs with all his attractive young female employees, and it's a very reasonable question - but for all that I think the professor's portrayal in Project Nim is commendably even-handed.

Marsh summons such restraint in this sense that the viewer never feels bullied into one corner or another. Instead, in the mode of the best documentaries, he asks the hard questions, lays out the evidence for and against, and leaves us, duly informed, to answer them. One instance of this is when an adolescent Nim - more trouble than he's worth apparently - is unceremoniously sold to the testing facility at LEMSIP; it's a heart-breaking moment, but by then we have seen this chimp at his worst as well as his best, and something had to be done, didn't it?

"An unsentimental biography" this is not - indeed it is so moving, in such contrary ways, that it feels almost abusive - but Marsh never manhandles the facts when they could come between him and his narrative, thus the experience of Project Nim is one of bipolar peaks and troughs; highs and low which will have you in hopeless tears one moment, only to bring out a sad smile or a great grin the next. But of course life is not lived in a straight line, as in the stories... neither for man, nor for monkey.

That James Marsh has managed - yet again - to fashion such a gripping narrative out of the colossal disorder of actual events, without intruding upon them or particularly directing our perception of them, is all the testament to his tremendous talent there needs be. Project Nim is for its part an incredibly powerful and poignant film, and though it is lamentably absent a final nomination at this year's Oscars, I can't imagine a worthier would-be winner than this.

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