Having missed Rise of the Planet of the Apes earlier in the month, I figured it was only right to catch a like minded cinematic documentary from Man on Wire director, James Marsh in the form of, Project Nim. The documentary follows the recollections of the scientists who worked on the project where they raise a baby chimp like they would a baby human, feeding him, playing with him and teaching him how to speak and react to the humans around him.
The feature takes it roughly in three stages after the chimp is ripped away from his birth mother by the head of the project, Professor Herbert Terrace. The first was probably the most heart-warming seeing baby Nim in the care of his first 'surrogate mother', Stephanie LaFarge who raised and treated baby Nim like a mother would her own child, and it was quite compelling the tension this caused with her husband and to a lesser degree the rest of her family.
Watching how Nim reacts to the people around him is quite fascinating, but equally so is the subliminal politics being played out between Terrace and his colleagues for Nim's affections also. Particularly in the transitional phase from his motherly relationship with LaFarge to the younger and more attractive Laura-Ann Petitto who the chimp seems to just attach himself to, strangely without a reaction to seeing LaFarge cut off.
After Laura left his life though was when it got really compelling and extremely tragic for Nim, and where a lot of the sheer grit and darkness of the feature unfolds. It's hard to know who to place most blame on, ethically was it right to remove the chimp from his birth mother in the first place, to raise him like a spoilt human who had every need catered for - more so than some humans have even experienced in their own lifetime - then just throw him back in a cage to be prod and poked for the rest of his days? In a strange way Marsh has portrayed Terrace as one of the leading villains you'll see in a cinema all year from this unjust betrayal. None more so than the patronising visit paid by the Professor in the testing site, a year later.
Animal lovers might find some scenes rather unpleasant - particularly after the project itself shuts down. Hell, anyone with a soul should be mortified at the treatment of poor Nim in the final 35 minutes of the feature. In truth though it probably doesn't highlight anything that anyone with an interest in animal rights doesn't already know. Either way, and referencing back to Planet of the Apes for a moment, you can see why they might rise against us.
Visually the way Marsh presented the whole feature was simply superb to experience on the big screen. Slick, bold, graphics and quite dark, atmospheric re-enactments of past events which wouldn't be entirely out of place in some deranged horror film. One of the personal highlights however was the joyful music, composed by Dickon Hinchliffe, which played during the moments when Nim learnt a new word or was evolving as a living being.
You'll be shocked, you'll be deeply saddened, you'll even be down right angry at times. However you'll also have your heart warmed, raise a smile and genuinely feel for another living being. Not an animal, not strictly just another a chimp, this was a living being who was treated and benefited from loving human interaction and it's genuinely sad to see, in the end, he was ultimately betrayed by it. A compelling, powerful and essential documentary. Project Nim? Project Win*.
Project Nim is in selected cinemas throughout the UK now. Northern Irish readers will be able to see the documentary in the Queen's Film Theatre, Belfast from Friday September 2nd, 2011.
*That was cheap, I'm sorry, it's been a long weekend.