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Philippe Petit

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Starring: Bern Cohen, Bob Angelini
Director: James Marsh

Summary: Director James Marsh chronicles the landmark experiment Project
Nim, which aimed to show the world that an ape could learn to communicate
through sign language, if raised and nurtured like a human child…

The Oscar-winning team behind Man on Wire do it again with Project Nim, the latest documentary by James Marsh - which is thankfully as slick, fascinating and heartfelt as everyone had hoped for. But unlike Man on Wire's extraordinary tale of triumph against the odds, Project Nim's plot takes an unflinching perspective of an animal removed from its mother and bounced around like an angry foster child in a cheap soap opera plot.

It's profoundly unsettling stuff and no doubt many a tear will be shed watching Nim's life ping pong around until the traumatic moment when his luxury life is exchanged for a brutal sanctuary and eventually an animal testing centre. That being said, the other side of the coin is fascinating, watching Nim grow and transform from everyday chimp to an animal capable of stringing sign language together is certainly riveting.

Like Man on Wire, Marsh chooses to use a selection of archive footage, stills, dramatic recreations and retrospective interviews to carefully jigsaws together a 90 minute slice of Nim Chimpsky's 26-year life. Undoubtedly there will be stones that have remained unturned in the films making, and I'm sure that the book of which the film is based could more eloquently explain such gaps, but thankfully Marsh's storytelling is extremely thorough in its delivery - and there's certainly no gaping plot holes left by the end of the film.

Unfortunately, there is one drawback to Project Nim which prevents the film from being just as powerful and extraordinary as Man on Wire, worse still it's unavoidable – lack of hope. There's no denying that Man on Wire was fascinating and could draw an audience in, but more importantly the story itself was inherently inspirational and the achievement of Philippe Petit manages to celebrate the very best of human capabilities. But for all the fascination of Nim's (apparent) abilities and the breathtaking story that Marsh weaves, there's no getting away from the fact that large portions of the film - and in particular the tail end - are particularly harrowing and unfortunately leave a sour taste.

Still, Project Nim is tremendously rich, full of diverse characters and dialogue that is hilarious, heartfelt and above all respectful to Nim's troubled existence. It may not have the same sense of uplifting accomplishment as Philippe Petit in Man on Wire, but Project Nim certainly deserves just as much attention as the former and tops the bill for 2011's best documentary with ease.

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