With British documentary maker James Marsh’s often wild mix of genuine footage and re-creations, in lesser hands his movies could easily slip into something approaching an episode of Cops. But luckily, as he proved with the Oscar-winning Man on a Wire and now again with Project Nim, he has the ability to blend the formats into an engaging narrative that pushes the definition of documentary filmmaking without ever breaking them down completely. In Nim, he tells the epic and often harrowing tale of a chimpanzee who becomes a pawn caught in the middle of the nature vs. nurture debate with visual verve and a genuine flair for storytelling. You can read Matt’s review of the film from Sundance 2011 here. Hit the jump for a review of Project Nim on DVD.
Marsh’s movie is at its strongest in the first chapter of Nim’s tale, as we’re quickly dropped – as he was – right in the middle of the household of Stephanie LaFarge in the ’70s, a self-described “rich hippie” with an already large family, who at the urging of Columbia University professor Herb Terrace adopted Nim and cared for him as Terrace and his students tried to teach Nim sign language. Marsh gets a big assist in the early going from a treasure trove of LaFarge’s own video footage from the time, setting a deceptively light tone as Nim seems to fit in immediately with his new “family.”
What we soon learn, however, is that along with the ambition and inquisitiveness of the main human participants, there’s more than a bit of naivete as well about the fact that as much as they try to tame Nim, what they’re truly dealing with is still a wild animal constantly growing bigger – and sometimes meaner. When one of Terrace’s charges describes a vicious attack by Nim as “like breaking up with a bad boyfriend,” it says more about her than I imagine she knew at the time.
Marsh’s technique of constant motion (though never shaky camera work by Michael Simmonds) gives the story an urgency of narrative that often makes the tale feel like its unfolding in real time. And the full participation from all kinds of human players in Nim’s saga gives the movie a Rashomonic quality as it inevitably turns to being at least as much about human behavior as it is about Nim’s life.
Terrace himself makes and only sort of defends all kinds of decisions that make you question his motives, and just as Errol Morris (whose work Marsh clearly appreciates) did with Robert McNamara in Fog of War, Marsh wisely lets him continue to dig his own holes. Other key players include a genuine hero in Bob Ingersoll, a truly dippy hippie who befriends Nim and offers Marsh even more astonishing video footage of their time together, and another player who delivers a surprising third act moment of grace that Marsh couldn’t have crafted himself in any fictional tale.
I don’t want to reveal too much about Nim’s often brutal journey, but let’s just say that as things get worse for our hero, unfortunately so does Marsh’s technique. As he begins to lack genuine footage, he leans more and more heavily on re-creations that strain the limits of credulity and too often just cross over into clear cheese, especially in scenes of lab testing on animals. In the end, however, Marsh takes a lot of chances with Project Nim, and luckily for him and us most of them pay off.
Among the extras on the fairly bare-bones DVD release, along with an audio commentary by Marsh that I haven’t yet taken in, are two enjoyable featurettes, “Bob’s Journey” and “Making Nim.” The former follows Ingersoll on the movie festival circuit, which makes him as giddy as a kid at recess, and in the latter we meet the truly unique “Chimp Man,” whose name alone should tell you how big a part he had in Marsh’s re-creations for Project Nim.
To close on a personal note, I have yet to compile a list of my 10 favorite movies of 2011, but it was a genuinely strong year, and Project Nim will find a home near the top if and when I ever get around to it. For his next project, Marsh delivered a fictional tale about the IRA, Shadow Dancer, to this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it received mixed reviews at best (including a D from Collider’s Matt Goldberg – ouch), so keep an eye out for it and judge for yourself.