Sunday, 4 December 2011

Oscars 2011 — PROJECT NIM

In the mid-1970s, Project Nim was a radical experiment to teach Nim, a baby chimpanzee, American Sign Language. The final goal? A coherent, grammatically correct sentence.

Blending reenactment footage with archival shots and stills from the 70s, director James Marsh (Man on Wire) brings us a fascinating look at a previously untested science. Though most will be attracted to the film because of the "Dr. Doolittle" possibilities, what's more intriguing are the research assistants and professors assigned to teach the animal signs. They are nuttier than a tree full of squirrels.

If you like documentarian Errol Morris, Project Nim is practically made for you. If you're unfamiliar with Morris' work, he generally tends to focus on delusional human characters, or he'll examine the quirks of a particularly peculiar person. In Nim, you'll see a lot of that, both in the contemporary interviews Marsh performs with the people involved, and in footage from the 70s. Sexual relationships between professor and student are made and broken, Oedipal complexes form between chimp and woman, and some of the assistants are just plain, well, bananas.

To be honest, the whole project is kind of insane, and you'll likely start to think about the ethical ramifications of the entire science. Is it wrong to try and force humanity onto an animal? Are they playing God? I'm not going to draw any conclusions (and neither does Marsh), but needless to say, this is one weird film. But it's certainly entertaining.

The production values are also superb, which isn't very common in documentaries. That's a bold statement, but consider how static some docs feel. Nim isn't like that. Titles that introduce people's names in the film are fluid and animated, and the interview setting is draped in black with engaging lighting effects. The talking heads in this film don't drone, and the camera moves laterally during these interviews to keep things visually stimulating.

All told, Project Nim is a highly interesting look at human foibles and power dynamics. And, I suppose, a signing chimpanzee. As one of 15 films short-listed for Best Documentary at the Oscars, this film has a strong chance in winning. (Fun fact — Marsh won the Best Doc award in 2008 for Man on Wire.)


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