Imagine you had a brilliant story that you just had to tell. Then you thought about the best way you could make that story cinematic. Then, perhaps in a moment of madness, you decided not to bother with the second part of that thought. You would probably end up with something similar to ape documentary Project Nim (2011) – directed by James Marsh who gave us the Oscar-winning Man on a Wire (2008) – which recounts the true strory of Nim Chimpsky.
Nim was a chimp born and raised in the 1970s as part of a scientific experiment to see if it was possible for apes to communicate with humans via sign language. There are multiple interviews tracing Nim’s journey under the treacly idea that whilst learning about Nim’s abilities, we also learn what it is to be human.
If Disney started up a documentary division the they would probably have a similar tone to the hackneyed, tired, saccharin approach that Marsh has taken to tell what is actually a profoundly disturbing story of how Man believes he can do what he wants.
The modern interviews are filmed in such a way that they break traditional rules of documentary filmmaking, and not for the better. At times the interviewees are looking into the distance and at others staring directly into the camera, with seemingly no consistency. This lack of continuity, which prevails throughout Project Nim, is incredibly distracting and pulls the film away from the interesting elements of the characters and themes, such as nature verses nature and scientific ethics, to a disjointed hacked outcome that removes the poignancy of the story.
There is an interesting mixture of footage including archive, stills and contemporary interviews, but sadly this is not exploited to its full potential. Instead Marsh has opted for very poorly directed dramatisations that are appalling in their simplistic approach.
The modern day interviews have clearly been cut to give the viewer one-dimensional characters so we immediately know who is good (the hippies) who is bad (the nasty scientists – boo, hiss) resulting in something akin to a Christmas pantomime. This is not to mention the tacky graphics to ‘explain’ plot points, because after the all the average viewer wouldn’t understand this complex science without a visual aid.
The strongest element of Project Nim’s story is the scientific research, the question of nature verses nurture, but this is glazed over. Whilst this element has some screen time, there are significantly more shots of Nim in cute jumpers and smoking weed, in an attempt to pull at our heartstrings or a snatch a cheap laugh. I had the awful moment of walking out of the cinema and saying, “If I had made that I would…”.
If you want to watch a good film about Mankind’s relationship to the great apes, I suggest either Nicolas Philibert’s Nénette (2010) or Rupert Wyatt’s newly released box office hit Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011). With these films you either know what you are getting (the latter) or are treated with a modicum of intelligence (the former).