Misguided experiment yields absorbing documentary

Sun Jan 23, 2011 11:21pm EST
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By David Rooney

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - After weaving an audacious high-wire stunt into an inspiring account of artistic endeavor in his Oscar-winning "Man on Wire," James Marsh again proves himself a master storyteller in the unsettling but equally enthralling "Project Nim."

HBO Documentary Films acquired all U.S. rights on the eve of the film's Sundance premiere, and should have no trouble securing partners for theatrical and DVD release.

The British documentarian's subject is a misguided animal experiment undertaken in the 1970s, when an infant chimpanzee named Nim was separated from its mother to be raised as part of a human family. The goal of this under-planned nurture vs. nature study was to teach the ape to communicate by acquiring sign-language skills. While this is fascinating material, it's the flawed human behavior it exposes that makes the story so compelling. And yet what elevates Marsh's film is the even-handedness of his perspective.

He has the assembly skills and narrative grasp of Errol Morris, combined with a more resolutely non-judgmental approach. Despite ample evidence in "Project Nim" of bad decisions and acknowledgement of them by the well-intentioned but blinkered people responsible, Marsh is not out to create villains so much as to slyly comment on muddy ethics. His film gains in psychological texture as a result.

Marsh and editor Jinx Godfrey had a treasure trove of footage and photographic material to work with, stitched together with strikingly shot interviews with the participants. All of them are surprisingly candid about behavior that often places them in an unflattering light. The filmmakers shape this into a fluid narrative that functions like any well-constructed bio-drama -- the sole difference being that its subject is a chimp.

Based on Elizabeth Hess' book, "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human," the documentary covers 27 years, starting when Columbia University behavioral psychology professor Herbert Terrace obtained the newborn Nim from an Oklahoma primate research center in 1973. He placed the chimp in the care of his grad student and former lover, Stephanie LaFarge, and her family.

Marsh extracts wry humor out of the rich-hippie mentality that could sign on for such a plan with zero knowledge of either animal psychology or sign language. "Let's have a chimp! It was the '70s," deadpans LaFarge's daughter, who was 10 at the time. Her mother's borderline carnal attachment to the animal possibly should have landed Nim in therapy.

A more structured learning environment was imposed by subsequent teachers who stepped in after LaFarge. But a sad pattern had already been established, with Nim playing and learning like a human child while at the same time acquiring strength and animal aggression for which his surrogate family was unprepared. The shortcomings and unintentional cruelties of the experiment become apparent long before the data are analyzed.   Continued...