Thursday, July 28, 2011

Traverse City Film Festival Dispatch # 2: PROJECT NIM

Director James Marsh finds subjects worthy of a large scope in the small, strange, half-forgotten corners of recent history. His Man on Wire is a documentary that finds transcendence in a dangerous high-wire walk. His entry in the sweeping historical crime trilogy Red Riding is one of three films that piece together into a decade spanning mystery. His latest film, Project Nim, has an epic sweep. It’s a biography that follows the entirety of a life across decades. The life just so happens to be that of a chimpanzee named Nim, taken from his mother shortly after birth and placed immediately in the center of scientific research.

It's the mid-1970's, a linguist from Columbia University placed the newborn Nim with a family that is told to raise him like a human child. The goal of the project is to see if chimps can learn to communicate with humans, to truly converse cross-species. The film follows the chimp as he achieves remarkable skill with sign language and then watches sadly, tragically, as his researchers inevitably fail him. A project to see how similar a chimp could be to a human became a project that brought out the best and the worst in the chimp as well as in the humans involved.

Marsh mixes archival footage and interviews with strategically placed flashes of reenacted scenes. These evocative, stylish moments are shot like a moody thriller and blend well with the archival footage, evoking a sense of dread that escalates in intensity as the project grows increasingly dangerous. A baby chimp is adorable, cute, needy and harmless. Fully grown, he doesn’t realize his own strength, his own capacity for quick-tempered bites. Within him are both the furry friend these people have made and an animalistic danger. He is love and threat in the same being.

There is oftentimes a visceral impact to the story as it reveals it's secrets from it's whimsical opening through to the end that hints at a sliver of hope in what became a sad muddle. Cruelty towards an animal is never pleasant, but what’s even worse is an animal who is treated like a human and then is suddenly forced to live like his own kind. And that’s the crux of the film. Is a chimp just a chimp? Or is he more than that?

A chimp's eyes, Nim’s eyes, reveal a startling range of emotion. Do we apply these feelings, or do they truly come from within the animal’s being? How each person involved in Nim’s life answers that question defines how they treat him. Some grow too close. Others stay too aloof. Still others treat him with cruelty. By Marsh giving this animal the kind of treatment usually given to historical figures of more immediately identifiable import, the film reveals the humanity in the chimp that in turn reflects back in ways both startling and sadly obvious on the all-too-human people tasked with his care.

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