[Hotdocs may have wrapped up last week, but there are a few more reviews and interviews in the queue, and James Marsh's Project Nim may have been the best film at this years festival.
Meet Nim Chimpsky, the irrepressibly cute chimpanzee snatched from his mother at birth from the Oklahoma Institute by Primate Studies by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace for a radical experiment in language and cognition: Could a chimp learn sign language and have a cross-species conversation with human beings? The superlative new documentary from James Marsh (Man On Wire, Wisconsin Death Trip) is an animal activist film, an epic custody battle drama, and more than anything a look at the many post-hippie social experiments going on in the United States during the 1970s. While animal lovers will get their fill of cute anthropomorphic snaps of Nim as he grows up with a variety of human companionship, for my money, the chimpanzee is a mere catalyst for all the good-intentioned-with-bad-egos, quite misguided behavior of academia and of human beings in general. You hurt the ones you love. Nim may be an animal beholden to his human masters, in fact one of the conclusions of the three year study is that they trained a subtle world-class beggar (not a high-functioning communicator), but his tragedy is far more reflective of science at its most primitive. Marsh uses a blend of current talking heads, environment re-creations and archival footage and snaps so seamless that one less savvy filmgoer might be convinced that this documentary was nearly 40 years in production.
Lets back up a minute. When Herbert gets his chimpanzee and his funding, he hands Nim over to one of his graduate students, Stephanie Lafarge, who already had three kids and a rich ex-hippie husband with his own brood of several children. Their New York Brownstone is not exactly the Brady Bunch, but Stephanie immediately gets attached to Nim, going so far as breast feeding (!) the new member of the family along with her own flesh and blood. Her remark is "Well, it was the 70s!" and never is this more reflected in her 'let the children run wild' ethos which leaves Nim with the run of the house, eventually driving a wedge between Stephanie and her husband (who Nim does not take to at all.) Nowhere in this domestic adventure is there sign language present. Herb put the chimp in Stephanie's care for warmth and empathy, not for the nuts and bolts experiment. Enter another grad student, Laura-Ann Petitto, who comes into the chaotic abode as a 'competing mother' with her own philosophy on 'child rearing' and organization. Hell hath no fury as these two battle for what is best for Nim. Eventually Laura-Ann 'wins' and Nim is moved to an idyllic Columbia University Estate, effectively snatched from his 'second mother.' Now Laura-Ann's 'victory' may have been what is best for the science, or it may have been because she was having an affair with Herb. Ahh, the 70s.
Like any complex case of custody battle, there are heroes, villains, lots of he-said-she-said. All the while, Nim is building an unprecedented vocabulary of expressions (his favourite is his own sign-creation for 'play.') Nim becomes a bit of a media cause-célèbre, appearing in the New York Times, interviewed by David Suzuki, etc. etc. But the needs of the chimp are left in the dust after the three years of funding (and use of the Estate) being to wain. He is getting bigger and his animal like nature begins to assert itself. Laura-Ann has left after her affair with Herb went sour, new sign language teachers come into the picture. One has her face severely torn in an attack by Nim. The chimp has well gone through puberty and is humping everything in sight, not to mention he is much stronger than a man at this point. He is kept on a leash for his own safety. To cap it all off, there is no exit strategy for this experiment. What to do with Nim, other than let him join his own kind (for the first time) back at the research lab, getting injections for experimental Hepatitis vaccines. More loss of parents, more abandonment. At this point, Nim has grown up to be rather indulged, a bit of a diva, and yet is still capturing the hearts of those humans he meets.
Enter Grateful Dead lovin' Bob Ingersoll, one of the employees at the Oklahoma Institute for Primate Research who becomes the latest human companion, as Nim doesn't take too much to others of his own kind at this point, at least in this environment. Ingersoll does his best to care for Nim (and many other chimps in the lab) even getting a lawyer to make a case for Nim being exempt from medical testing due to his advanced language skills (bridging the gap between human and primate) but eventually getting Nim transferred via Cleveland Amory, an animal activist, to a Texas farm. Although, like everything in Nim's existence, it is a two-edged sword, as this activist is doing his good deed as much to curry media favour as anything else, he hasn't a clue about what to do with chimpanzees, all his animals are of the hoofed, equine variety. Thus Nim ends up in a small cage with no companionship and Ingersoll banned from the farm by legal restraining order.
So at this point (if you are still reading) you are probably saying, "why the hell is this reviewer giving the whole damn plot of the film away?" And while that is a valid question, it shows how much documentaries have evolved in the past decade. There indeed a plot within the film, and it is a highly effective one that straddles the line between emotion and conscious consideration. My own reaction to the piece is just what a colossal failure the 1970s may have been for all its idealized ambitions of social re-ordering - schools being reformed on self-esteem, feminism, massively increases in divorce and the like. I am not saying we should go back to the 'moral 50s' (but the 'sumer of love' ain't coming back either), but there the human casualties are the generation that grew up during the experiment. Like the worlds dabbling with communism in the twentieth century (and nearly unfettered capitalism in the 21st century), it simply fails to take into account all the human flaws and underscores time and time again a distinct lack of long term planning in favour of the short-term ego boost or emotional-high. That a documentary about a chimpanzee's sojourn through quasi-elite western human society can reveal so much (both positive and negative) in such an elegant way, well, it makes Project Nim pretty ground breaking stuff. Even the introductions (and eventual exeunts) of the key players are handled with camera tracking shots, introducing themselves via sign language. The technical side of the film feels fresh and novel as the subject itself.
Marsh and his producer started from Elizabeth Hess' book, "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human," have gathered so much archival footage and combined it with talking head segments, voice-overs and scene-recreations (along with Errol Morris, Marsh is in top-form on this particular sticky ground) such that we can perhaps stop calling these things documentaries, and start calling them movies. Man on Wire, ostensibly about tight-rope walking, was framed like a heist film and like any good acrobat, juggled issues of homeland security, art-for-the-joy-of-performance, and the emotional consequences of any clandestine 'movement.' Project Nim goes even bigger in scope from its own small (but never trivial) story. In getting great interviews from all the people in Nim's life (he died in captivity at the relatively young age of 26) subjects, who show themselves warts and all on screen juxtaposed with their youthful ambitions, maybe come out of it a bit wiser for the experience. But what of the messy collateral damage? And this doesn't even broach the tangential subject of how much better the human race is for testing life expanding pharmaceuticals at the expense of monkeys and rats. Project Nim makes PETA look like the kindergarden farce that it is.