DocFest 2011: Project Nim
James Marsh came to prominence a couple of years back with the fantastic documentary-come-heist movie Man On Wire. That film, constructed from a combination of archive material and dramatic interpretations of the events being described was something of a major crossover success, playing in multiplex’s and winning the Best Documentary Oscar, and a similar fate seems destined to fall upon Marsh’s follow-up feature, Project Nim.
The story of the eponymous university research project of the title, Project Nim tells the story of the life of Nim Chimpsy, a chimpanzee who sat at the centre of a five year experiment in to chimp communication technique. The film traces the life of Nim from the moments in which he is taken from his mother at two weeks old and being placed into life with a liberal family in a New York brownstone, right through to his final “home” living in an animal rescue centre in Texas. Along the way we take in such sights as a former presedential home turned chimp school, an animal testing unit, and a locale that can only be described as a “chimp prison”, a dreadful simian dystopia where apes are forced to clean floors and wash dishes, and monkeys freely commit murder and suicide.
As with all good crowd-pleasing docs of this ilk, Project Nim features a number of memorable characters. Herb Terrace, the academic heading up the experiments is something of a serial womaniser, engaging in all sorts of extra-curricular activities with a number of female students, and comes across as a deceitful, harsh person. On the flip side of the coin we have Bob, the one man that never gave up on Nim, so to speak. Bob actually made a personal appearance at this screening, and received a heroes welcome upon his arrival at the end of the film.
Project Nim is a wonderfully constructed film, and (please excuse the use of this term, I know its crass) an emotional rollercoaster. There was nary a dry eye in the house so to speak, as the horrors of Nim’s emotional breakdown were detailed, nor were there many in the auditorium not seething with anger when one of the team around Nim finally admitted that they and their colleagues had failed in their commitment to the chimp when they had finished their experiments. A powerful, thought provoking film, Project Nim is highly recommended.
Project Nim is released theatrically on August 12th.