Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Brian's Review of Project Nim

Fiction–Nonfiction by Brian Crane

Project Nim tells the life story of a chimpanzee named Nim, and that story is compelling. He lives with a human family, learns sign language, passes through a medical lab where he’s used to test experimental vaccines and ends up alone in a cage on a horse sanctuary in Texas until the last years of his life. The documentary Project Nim is not, however, a compelling film. Worse, to my eye, it misses its subject near completely.

To the extent we care about Nim beyond “Awww, a baby chimp! In diapers! That’d make a great poster!,” we care because the arc of his story, like Nim himself, bristles with humanity. He is nearly human but is treated as merely animal. We object and rage as he is shuffled from lab to lab. And the film expects and requires that we do. But oddly enough, Project Nim does everything it can to obscure this drama, hiding it behind a cheap version of objectivity-defined-as “balance.”

In this film, everyone gets their say. No one is judged for anything. The aging hippy who shared beer and pot with Nim gets to ask how anybody could be so cold as to send Nim off to a medical lab. The narcissistic lead researcher gets to declare that Nim is an animal and that no one can keep a chimp for more than five years. Neither claim is examined, neither is tested against the other. Both are simply “positions” offered up as mere pros and cons Ă  la Fox News or freshman composition.

The problem with this weak-objectivity is that, during Nim’s dramatic event-filled life, these positions were never balanced. Not even close. The lead researcher’s position had financial, institutional, and cultural power in spades. The hippy’s did not. Nim’s life was defined by the exercise of that researcher’s power. Any attempt to present this conflict--between a powerful egoist and powerless do-gooders--as balanced misses the plain content of Nim’s life and ignores the only question that matters in his story: Who (or what) is Nim and what ethical obligation did these people have to him (or it)? An objective film–i.e. a rational film rather than a balanced one–would address this question head on. Project Nim does not. Instead, the film asks us to feel outraged, even guilty for reasons it won’t identify and feels manipulative.

Happily, a more honest version of Nim’s story is currently in theatres. The first ninety minutes of The Rise of the Planet of the Apes fictionalizes Nim’s story point-by-point (really!) but without glossing over its stakes. The conflict between the humanity of Nim’s double–a chimp named Ceasar–and our need to treat him as an animal is front and center in this fictional drama. As in Project Nim, the people in this film do the chimp wrong. Even those who love him do. But here, the film asks point blank: what is to be done?

The last half hour offers an answer, however fantastic. Ceasar and San Francisco’s other abused apes (all of them scienti-magically intelligent) escape across the Golden Gate bridge and into the Redwood National Forest. In this film, these apes don’t need our help. They write us off and go away to take care of themselves.
Free to be fiction, Rise gets the stakes of Nim’s story just right. We have ethical obligations to creatures like Nim, and we ignore them for purely selfish reasons. The film’s response to our ethical failing–a wish that somehow in some way things will work out for the best on their own–is pure Hollywood fantasy but not completely different from the wish involved in buying fair trade coffee or voting NDP.

The film winks at the impossibility of its fantasy solution though, and true to its apocalyptic mode, offers another, bleaker solution to our bad behaviour. In a side-plot developed mostly in the credits, Rise imagines our extinction via a viral plague we create. What goes around comes around. This poetic justice is a very different kind of balance than Project Nim's.

So two movies telling the same story. One a CGI-driven fantasy. One an objective recounting of facts. And only one getting at the truth. See Rise not Nim.

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