James Marsh: Project Nim

I guess that most readers know that James Marsh ”Project Nim” is about the dramatic life of a chimpanse… nevertheless read how Peter Bradshaw precisely introduced the film in Guardian August 11 2011:

Project Nim was a sensational Pygmalion-type experiment devised by Professor Herb Terrace, a specialist in primate cognitive abilities at New York’s Columbia University. In 1973, he wanted to see if a chimp (called Nim) could be taken into a human family and taught to communicate with sign language. Yet Marsh elegantly shows his audience that this is not entirely what Project Nim was about. Without any of the human participants acknowledging or even realising it, Project Nim was effectively a manipulative experiment in human sexual behaviour and family life.

Terrace was evidently a charismatic and powerful alpha-gorilla academic who simply declared that a former student of his (with whom he once had a sexual relationship) would have the honour of mothering his chimp-pupil…”

I can only support this analysis of this good film and add that it clearly demonstrates Marsh skills in building, one could say designing a story so it functions dramaturgically. He separates stylistically the interviews from the fantastic archive material with Nim, he has a strong music side the whole way through, as well as a sound design, and there are graphics (mostly words of or drawings from Nim’s sign language) filling the screen once in a while. It is all very effectively conveyed, we are asked to laugh and to cry at the right moments, it is a superb construction like “Man on Wire” was it, like “Searching for Sugarman” (same producer) is it. The use of effects to reach the goal is not hidden for the spectator, on the contrary. What I am trying to say, is that I felt like looking at a form that prevented me from entering the film totally, even if I wanted to. There are other new documentaries which are copying the style of Marsh or are a bit alike (Erroll Morris is a master of designed documentaries), am I the only one who is afraid that this trend will end up in predictable, designed superficiality?  

Seen at Message to Man, St. Petersburg 2012


UK/USA, 2011, 93 mins.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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