Project Nim (2011)
James Marsh

Project Nim

Project Nim (2011), directed by James Marsh of Man on Wire (2008) fame, gives to us the life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at Columbia University that was being trained to communicate in sign language, as narrated by Dr. Herbert Terrace (the head of the project) and his team of trainers. We see the animal being taken away from his mother by force, brought up along with human children at one of Terrace’s friends’ home, transferred back to the university, sold to a drug-testing facility and, finally, to a private ranch. We witness the devastating tragedy of Nim’s life, as he is deracinated, trained for years to become human-like only to be expected, subsequently, to behave like chimpanzee. Throughout, there is an ambivalence based on the nature versus nurture question that we experience: Is Nim’s rapid learning curve an indication of the dominance of social relations in shaping communication or is his random acts of violence a clinching proof for the presence of an innate animal essence? The interviewees describe their relationship to Nim in very human terms and one wonders if some of it is not the projection of their own anthropomorphic understanding of the animal’s behaviour. Consequently, Nim becomes something of a MacGuffin that everybody is talking about, but no one knows what it exactly is. The film’s sympathies clearly lie with the animal, to such an extent that it refuses to see the complexity of the situation. Abstracting scientific research as animal cruelty, the film fails to take into account the more pressing issues that are being addressed by such projects. To add to this gross simplification, Marsh’s questionable fictional restaging of facts and regular use of unrelated footage in order to prevent the film from becoming a talking-heads documentary betrays a lack of faith on the material and an unwarranted fear that a straightforward presentation would be ‘uncinematic’.

Director: James Marsh

Cast: Philippe Petit

The Buzz: Nominated in the Best Documentary category

The Run: Won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize (Documentary) at the Sundance Film Festival, BAFTA for Outstanding British Film

Man On Wire

Audience On Wire

The much talked about documentary Man on Wire is about a man who breaks into rooftops of tall structures only to perform his ropewalking act on them. Specifically, it shows us Philippe Petit’s attempts to fulfill his cherished dream of walking between the twin towers of the World Trade Center on a wire. The film cuts to and fro between three time lines – Philip’s biographical history and his induction into this “crime”, hours before the actual event that is to occur, and the present year at the studio – and provides a seamless documentation of one of the most shocking moments in history.

Mr. Marsh, the director, crosscuts facts presented as interviews with fictionalized forms of the same, shot in B&W. Man on Wire carries the tagline “The artistic crime of the century”. And in retrospect, each word of the tagline seems to resonate loudly. “Artistic” because of the discoveries it can make – of one’s own unlimited physical and mental strength and of one’s own limitations. “Crime” because how it all happened. More than the event itself, the preparations of the event are so dramatic that they can pass of as sequences from a top-notch heist film. And the last word of the tagline is a subtle tribute to the famous twin structure that the new century could never retain. Interestingly, the film never laments about the destroyed structure and sticks to what happened with Philippe alone. And that is a move of great confidence.

As such, Man on Wire makes a great watch primarily because of the content it provides. There are pretty decent insights too into Philippe’s mind with respect to the death-defying act he performs. But I guess, even though it is lovingly directed, it may not go on to win the Oscar. True, that it throws a shiver down the spine but not more than the event itself. And kids, do not attempt this at home!