Sunday, 21 August 2011

project nim (d james marsh)

If the first rule of film-making is to select a story that is captivating, the director Marsh has clearly mastered it. Project Nim recounts the history of a chimpanzee raised by humans as part of an experiment to establish the chimp's capacity for language. It has heroes - Nim himself and his defenders, as well as a clear villain, in the shape of the unlikely Lothario who ran the program and seemed to give up on Nim as soon as the going got tough, sending him to live in a hellish cage and then onto a medical research program which used chimps as quasi-human guinea pigs.

Following on from Man on Wire, Marsh has unearthed a remarkable story which more than deserves the telling, a kind of real-life Battle of the Apes. Nim's anthropomorphic qualities are astonishing, with several of the people who knew him commenting on his ability to read the mood of a room and its occupants, as well as his instinct towards a masculine domination of his territory that appeared to function across the species barrier. Several women talk about Nim in near doting terms: he was more than a chimp, he was a friend, and one that was betrayed by the human race.

However, in contrast to Man on Wire, Project Nim feels like a slightly more serviceable documentary, which does the job without a great deal of magic. There's a lot of talking heads, as the film unearths Nim's former associates, who appear in the chronological order in which they appeared in his life, departing with the aid of a slightly mannered camera move which slowly draws away from the interviewee before the story moves onto the next one. There is a good deal of archive footage and some fairly lacklustre recreations, but it feels a little bit like Marsh is coasting at times. Both the poetic and scientific aspects of Nim's ability for communication felt as though they needed to be explored in greater depth. Locked within Nim's story there appears to be a profound commentary on the limits of being human, both in terms of our capacity to empathise (with hints here of Rilke) and our obsession with notions of progress, a progress which only succeeds in removing us further from our origins. But Project Nim seems reluctant to grapple with the full implications of the fascinating story it tells.

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