Thursday, 18 August 2011

'Project Nim' review:

You can't really write a review of James Marsh's documentary 'Project Nim' without mentioning 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'. Not only were both chimp-based movies released in the UK on the same day, but both overlap in terms of how they portray the life, from birth to adulthood, of one chimpanzee. And to quite disturbing effect.

Using the same mix of filmed interviews, dramatic re-enactments and archive material (amateur film, news coverage and still photography) that worked so well in Marsh's last film, the Academy Award winning 'Man on Wire', 'Project Nim' tells the story of Nim Chimpskey: a chimp abducted from his mother in the early 70s in order test whether language is unique to humans. However, despite being raised as a human child by a slightly mad New York family of "rich hippies", Nim was eventually discarded: given up for laboratory testing after the experiment concluded. Though eventually purchased from that facility by a wealthy animal sanctuary owner, Nim would spend the rest of his life in solitude within the confines of a concrete cage - his brief time in the media spotlight long since over.

The experiment itself comes across as a farce from beginning to end, with every scientist along the way growing personally attached to the chimp (treating him as a friend or infant human rather than an animal), perhaps all too eager to believe his repetition of various signs was proof of "language". But what's really striking are the questions it raises about the way chimps are kept by humans for entertainment and science (also a central theme of 'Rise'). As with his blockbuster counterparts, Nim's conditions in one animal sanctuary are like those of a prison, with the animals put to work in the yard whilst the humans patrol with cattle prods. One worker from the sanctuary says that there were "a couple of murders and two suicides" amongst the inmates and this bizarre similarity is matched by both films near identical portrayal of sterile medical research labs.

By the look of things, the experiment was hardly safe for the humans involved either, as we hear how the maturing Nim frequently attacked his handlers - biting a hole in the cheek of one woman and sinking his fangs dangerously close to the artery of another. At one point Nim kills a poodle whilst attempting to shut it up, whilst he also becomes obsessed with using household cats for the purposes of sexual gratification. Much like David Oyelowo's nasty, profit-obsessed businessman character in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', those behind the Nim experiment seem to have overlooked the safety of those involved in search of fame and profit.

The documentary mostly dismisses Herbert Terrace (the man behind the study) as little more than a publicity seeker and a slightly creepy user of impressionable young women. And, on the evidence provided, that may well be a fair assessment of his character. Yet Terrace's quite reasonable conclusion, that Nim did not in fact learn sign language but simply repeated gestures he learned would result in some form of gratification (food, contact, entertainment), is presented cynically by the film. It's as if Marsh is personally convinced, against science, that the chimp really did learn language. Contributors who speak about Nim more romantically, talking about holding "conversations" with the chimp and smoking pot with him, are given more favourable screen-time.

A perfect companion piece to 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes', 'Project Nim' serves to highlight the real life animal rights issues behind the fantasy, as well as showing how accurate some of that bigger film's settings really are. But even in isolation this is a worthwhile documentary. Incredibly heartfelt testimony of some of Nim's handlers ensures that it packs an emotional punch, whilst Marsh has lost none of the filmmaking tools which made his previous film so slick and entertaining.

'Project Nim' is on limited release in the UK now and is rated 'U' by the BBFC.

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