Sundance 2011. James Marsh's "Project Nim"

David Hudson

"It says something that out of four feature-length films opening the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, the hottest ticket in town wasn't the celebrity doc (Sing Your Song) or the buddy cop thriller starring two famous-for-an-indie-movie stars (The Guard)," writes Jen Yamato at Movieline. "Instead, Thursday's big premiere was Project Nim — or, as it was referred to around Park City, 'the monkey movie' — a documentary by returning Grand Jury Prize/Audience Award winner James Marsh, whose first and last Sundance debut (Man on Wire) went on to win an Oscar… Sharply but not judgmentally observed and dynamically edited, the documentary follows the remarkable and tragic life of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised from infancy to behave, communicate, and sometimes even smoke joints like a human person by a (mostly) loving assembly of hippie academics in 1970s New York."

"The comic bizarreness of this story, which also was told in a book by Elizabeth Hess, suggests that Charlie Kaufman might have been inspired by Nim to write the non-John Malkovich parts of Being John Malkovich," blogs the Boston Globe's Wesley Morris. "But this movie remains tinged with a horror that, like the bass line in some songs, you don't notice but is crucial to heft of the music. After 40 minutes, as the film turns into a story of maddening inhumanity, it become all bass."

"The starting point of Project Nim, funded by BBC Films and the now defunct UK Film Council, is an investigation by Columbia psychologist Herb Terrace into the notion that a chimpanzee raised among people might master human communication," explains Jeremy Kay in the Guardian. "To discover the answer, Terrace thrusts Nim into the bosom of a willing colleague's rich, hippy household in New York [headed by former psychology student Stephanie Lafarge]. It is in this chaotic petri dish that the animal comes under the well-meaning scrutiny of his adopted family and ingratiates himself with his carers, to the delight of some and the chagrin of others… What emerges is a telling exposé of human vanity that reminds us that while our close genetic relatives are as intelligent as they come, we can be the biggest chumps."

Writing for Screen, Anthony Kaufman notes that "the experiment's priorities immediately get lost, as Lafarge feels language is getting in the way of Nim's ability to experience life as a child… As a succession of teachers follows, Nim grows older and more aggressive, and the once cuddly little monkey shows his fangs." The doc "involves an array of further twists and turns, distressing lows, including Nim being sold to medical research, and near-redemptive highs, eventually being saved and whisked away to a Texas ranch, to address deeper questions about scientific responsibility, human cruelty and selfishness, and the links between language and higher consciousness. It's not exactly the wild fun ride of Man on Wire, but it's quite a trip all the same."

"Watching Project Nim, I repeatedly flashed back to Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, another film about the sad consequences of reading a whole catalogue of human behaviors onto a wild animal simply because of isolated familiar traits," writes Daniel Fienberg at HitFix. "The actual Project Nim was about trying to understand the things that go on in the mind of a chimp. But Marsh knows that his hero can't sit down for an interview of his own, so Project Nim the documentary is about trying to understand the things that go on in the mind of people. In that respect, it's actually similar to Man on Wire, which looked at tightrope walker Philippe Petit and said 'What on Earth would make a man want to do that?' With Man on Wire, Marsh found an enchanting answer. With Project Nim, Marsh found only a string of confounding questions."

Mary Anderson Casavant talks with Marsh for Filmmaker, where Marsh himself looks back on a few "unexpected and magical surprises" that helped the project along. Viewing (13'10"). An IntheCan interview with Marsh.

Project Nim's screened in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

Update: "Dealing with the interplay between scientific reasoning and pure wonder, Marsh ultimately allows wonder to win out," writes indieWIRE's Eric Kohn.

Updates, 1/22: For's Alison Willmore, if Man on Wire "was Philippe Petit's tightrope walk by way of Ocean's Eleven, Project Nim could be described as the story of Herbert S Terrace's chimpanzee study by way of, well, Splice. But maybe it's better summed up by one of the interviewees shrugged explanation for what must have looked like a much saner idea at the time: 'It was the 70s.' … As the film turns from a fascinating documentation of an experiment that blurred the lines between species into a more depressing and expected tale of animal cruelty, the main revelation of Project Nim isn't that it was inappropriate for these people to treat Nim like a human as much as it was when they all eventually stopped."

Marsh "has the assembly skills and narrative grasp of Errol Morris, combined with a more resolutely non-judgmental approach," writes David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. "Despite ample evidence in Project Nim of bad decisions and acknowledgement of them by the well-intentioned but blinkered people responsible, Marsh is not out to create villains so much as to slyly comment on muddy ethics. His film gains in psychological texture as a result."

"Terrace still writes off as wishful thinking any effort to show that chimpanzees can acquire language," reports Amina Khan, who's spoken with a few key players for the Los Angeles Times. "He mentioned a short story by Franz Kafka titled 'A Report for an Academy,' in which an ape describes attempts to make him act like a human. 'I'll say it again: Imitating human beings was not something which pleased me,' Kafka's ape confesses. 'I imitated them because I was looking for a way out, for no other reason.'"

"If Man on Wire is one of the most crowd-pleasing docs of all time, this may be one of the most constantly devastating," writes Christopher Campbell for Cinematical.

Updates, 1/23: "The most fascinating aspect of Project Nim — which has already been acquired for broadcast by HBO and, at 83 minutes, feels slightly flabby in its second half — are the parallels that emerge between the two, two-faced protagonists: Herb, a pathologically self-interested academic stud, and his cuddly-vicious test subject." Karina Longworth for the Voice: "Both are passionate hedonists, who calculate how to get what they want from others — and how to ask for it in a way that obscures the calculation; both hurt the people they genuinely care about as a side-effect of exploring their pleasure proclivities. In Herb's case, it's his cavalier treatment of women that causes pain; in Nim's it's his propensity towards playful violence that gets way out of hand. Both converge in the fate of Laura, whose exit line sums up the film's thesis struggle: 'You can't give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you.'"

IndieWIRE interviews Marsh.

Update, 1/26: "It all reminded me very powerfully of Frederick Wiseman's Primate (1974), a film I saw only recently that tackled with observational dispassion, but not moral disinterest, many of the same issues in a strictly clinical environment," writes Damon Smith at Reverse Shot. "Nim's emotional world was human, however, and therein lies the tragedy of his theft and abandonment at the hands of science."

Update, 1/31: "Jeff Nichols's Take Shelter and James Marsh's Project Nim were selected as the best narrative and documentary films at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in a poll of film critics and bloggers conducted over the weekend by indieWIRE," reports Peter Knegt. Nim has also won the World Cinema Directing Award: Documentary.

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