Top Ten Movies of 2011 — Number Eight

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While all movies strive for authenticity, there’s an added expectation of voracious adherence to the truth when it comes to documentaries, even as advocacy pieces become more and more prevalent. And yet there’s also a growing commitment to transforming non-fiction films from fairly static assemblages of talking head interviews and archival footage to actual emotional journeys. They don’t need to be cinematic term papers. They can deliver satisfying storytelling just as assuredly as any fictional concoction. Indeed the grounding in real-life experiences should theoretically deliver a more potent kick. Director James Marsh clearly understood that when he made his Oscar-winning documentary on tightrope walker Philippe Petit, Man on Wire, which stuck to the facts but occasionally finessed the presentation. He employs a similar approach with Project Nim, but the subject matter almost guarantees that the film will pack more of a wallop. Man on a Wire was about an entertaining stunt; Project Nim conveys a truly heartbreaking tale that demonstrates what happens when genuine innocence is caught in the crossfires of human arrogance. Nim was a chimpanzee that was incorporated into a experiment in the nineteen-seventies to see what would happen if this animal that shared so much with man was raised as if it were a human child, with a special emphasis on developing language. The film delves into the terribly messy relationships of the various people who move in and out of Nim’s life, and, most tragically, exposes what happens when the scientific exploration is over. The whole film becomes a study in how easily hubris evolves into callousness with a despicable dose of self-rationalizing delusion thrown in. Marsh is even-handed but also merciless in his evaluation of all the ways that Nim’s handlers failed to properly protect him, even though it was their efforts that left him especially ill-prepared for the hardships he eventually faced. The film is powerful, quietly devastating and makes a great case for the value of creative nonfiction as a cinematic endeavor.

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