PARK CITY, Utah (Reuters) - Steering clear of labeling it an animal rights film, "Man on Wire" director James Marsh has returned to the documentary world by examining a chimpanzee famed in the 1970s for being raised like a human.
"Project Nim," the British director's first documentary since his Oscar-winning "Man on Wire," premiered at the opening night of the Sundance Film Festival on Thursday to strong audience buzz and solid reviews.
Marsh, who finished editing the film three days ago, told Reuters on Friday that "Project Nim" offered as many lessons about how humans see themselves as it does about chimps.
"It's not an animal rights movie; it's not an activist kind of film," he said. "It's an animal life story but in fact, within that there is this great, interesting interaction with human beings and we are learning a bit about ourselves too."
Comic and touching, 'Project Nim' follows the 1970s research project that made headlines for experimenting with a chimp named "Nim," seized as a baby and placed with a human mother in New York City who tried to raise him like her own children.
The film uses extensive video footage that follows Nim as he is raised in nappies, taught sign language and tragically passed through various caretakers. He grows from being an affectionate, mischievous baby to a stronger, cunning adult who eventually meets other chimpanzees with curious results.
"He doesn't know anything about what he is, he just sees human beings and so the film and indeed, the experiment, becomes about nature and nurture. If you nurture a sentient animal, what and how can you influence him? And the answer is in the film," Marsh said. "We discover quite quickly that he has his own unique chimpanzee nature."
The film sheds light on how humans seek to control animals and broadens its story by exploring the caretakers' bonding experiences with each other complete with "broken hearts and friendships made and broken," said Marsh.
"We are studying him (Nim) in the film, and I think he is studying us. There is a lot of quite human drama that unfolds around this chimpanzee," he said. "His story becomes one of increasing control that we exert upon him and he is baffled and confused, particularly when we start out mothering him."
The film has been initially well-received by critics, with The Hollywood Reporter saying "James Marsh again proves himself a storyteller of impeccable craftsmanship and delicacy in the unsettling but equally enthralling 'Project Nim'."
Variety said the "Nim" works by "raising big questions about ethics, parenting strategies and what separates man from animal."
Marsh, who has directed both documentaries and fictional films, including the acclaimed "Red Riding" trilogy, said he deliberately avoided being funded by animal rights groups because he wanted people to know "Nim" raised broader ideas such as how language fits into evolution.
"This is about a human, animal drama so it has no overt agenda," he said. "The film hopefully works as a narrative first and foremost."
"Nim" differs from "Man On Wire" -- the tale of Philippe Petit's illegal, 1974 high-wire walk between New York City's twin towers -- in subject matter, but Marsh said there were parallels in technique in trying to tell the story in an absorbing, present tense as the film unfolds.
"You are trying to get interviewees to really reconnect with their feelings and how they felt at the time that this stuff was going on," said Marsh.
And yet, "Nim" proved much harder to make, he said. "'Project Nim' is a much more complicated narrative. It is an episodic, picaresque kind of story. We follow this animal from its birth to its end."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte