James Marsh, director of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire (2008), easily rates amongst the finest British filmmakers working today. Marsh is perpetually ducking and weaving in and out of fiction and documentary so deftly that they bleed into one another, until something like a higher truth rises to the surface. Project Nim (2011), Marsh’s latest foray into documentary, details the tumultuous life of chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky – slyly named after linguist Noam Chomsky – as he is taken from his birth mother and raised as a human child.
Nim is taught sign language and even breastfed by his surrogate mother Stephanie LaFarge (“It was the 70s!” exclaims Jenny Lee, her more levelheaded daughter), though it soon becomes apparent that his animal tendencies refuse to be shackled by wishful anthropomorphism.
Marsh weaves a tapestry of Super 8 film, stylised talking heads and visceral reconstructions to create a masterpiece of non-judgemental documentary filmmaking, a biopic with a protagonist that, try as we might, we cannot project our own qualities onto. Nim is a chimp, an animal – it is our meddling with that fundamental and simple truth that is the central and horribly protracted tragedy of the film.
The DVD contains an insightful making of which reveals far more than many would care to know about the film’s ingenious reconstructions and should be viewed after the film has been given time to digest. Marsh gives an impassioned and articulate interview, explaining his desire for the film to always feel ‘present tense’ so as to enhance the gruelling experience, the rigorous chronology making the film’s third act almost unbearable to watch in places, such is our desire to be offered a retrospective view or an all-encompassing coda.
Like Marsh’s previous work, particularly 2005 drama The King and his 1999 masterpiece Wisconsin Death Trip, his latest film is at times a legitimately transcendent experience. Whereas Man on Wire allowed us a glimpse of what it feels like to scorn death and human limitation, Project Nim often paralyses you with a choking sense of injustice, the evidence of which glistens off every audience member’s face when the cinema lights rise.
Project Nim emerges as a powerful and provocative film that will leave you rattled, angry and ready to talk. Short of doing a Thin Blue Line, you could hardly ask more of a documentary.