Project Nim (2011)

Documentary by James Marsh

I’d wanted to see this documentary for quite some time, so was excited to finally sit down and watch it last night with a friend.  Sadly, it was a bit of a disappointment, I think in large part due to my dislike of the filmmaker’s documentary style.  James Marsh also made the critically popular documentary Man On Wire (chronicling tightrope walker Philippe Petit) about which I felt the same (more on this in a bit).  Project Nim documents the story of a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky who became the subject of a scientific experiment spearheaded by a Columbia University professor in the 1970’s.

What I expected to be a moving, emotionally engaging, intelligent account of our closest primate relative being raised among humans as opposed to its like species turned out to be a veritable freak show!  The majority of the “players” in the experiment came across as delusional oddballs who seemed more like they belonged on the Jerry Springer Show than at a higher education institution conducting experiments with an innocent primate in the name of science.  When the monkey comes across as the most sane of the bunch, you know there’s something awry.  (In all fairness, Nim ends up being no less unhinged than the band of homo-sapiens who take him under their wing, though one must question whether it is these very people who make him so.)  Truly, the majority of them (save for one or two) come across as self-absorbed, power-hungry, hormonally driven narcissists (their being in the midst of the hippie-dippy, druggie era notwithstanding).  I’m actually curious to listen to some of the audio commentary in hopes of learning what Marsh’s intention(s) or angle was in terms of presenting these “characters” in Nim’s story.  And characters they are ~ astonishingly so.

My feelings regarding Nim are complicated.  In his youth, he is undeniably adorable and seemingly sweet, those giant eyes and childlike affection drawing you in.  Over time, however, those same eyes take on an almost sinister glower…and once we begin learning of his vicious attacks on some of his caretakers, he becomes downright frightening in his unpredictability.  Now whether this would be simply natural behavior in his native climate, among his own species or whether this behavior is a result of his “upbringing” by humans of questionable mental health, we may never know.  It’s an interesting question to ponder.  Regardless, the film would make any animal rights activist see red.

But back to my general dislike of Marsh’s documentary style…he tends to use dramatizations/re-enactments in his films, of which I’m really NOT a fan.  There’s a very cheesy, bad television quality about them that acts to cheapen the story for me.  They somehow detract from the authenticity of the subject matter.  Even the interviews (which are instrumental to the film) feel a bit staged and overly “directed”.  Overall, his work seems to me “plotted out” and forced as opposed to organically unfolding, which is, in my opinion, what lends documentaries their effectiveness.  It would seem that documentaries should document their subject, not make it look like a Dateline expose.

I think Nim deserved better treatment.  In every sense of the word.  Here, as well as in life.

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