'Project Nim' director brings a narrative sense to documentary film

Saturday, March 5, 2011 | 9:23 p.m. CST; updated 8:45 p.m. CST, Monday, March 7, 2011
Film director James Marsh sits on a panel Saturday at Columbia Art League that discussed the changing ways of using archival footage in documentary filmmaking. In 2008 Marsh won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for directing "Man On Wire," a film that combined archival footage, thrilling reconstructions and interviews. The panel was moderated by producer Simon Chinn and also featured Chad Friedrichs, Göran Olsson and Pietro Marcello.

COLUMBIA – In the beginning, James Marsh didn't even want to direct documentary films.

“To be blunt, my ambition was always to make fiction films. But in the U.K., where I grew up and started working, there's a huge documentary culture on television," he said.

"Documentaries were really just the easiest way to become a director – well, it’s not that easy, but it's certainly the path of least resistance."

This seems like a strange thing for James Marsh to say. In the 20 years since he began directing television documentaries for the BBC, Marsh has become one of the most respected documentary filmmakers in the world.

He’s the winner of this year’s True Vision Award, the only prize awarded by the True/False Film Festival.

On Friday, Marsh's most recent documentary "Project Nim" played to an enthralled audience at the Forrest Theater. Two weeks before that, the film opened the Sundance Film Festival in Utah. 

And two years ago, Marsh's masterpiece "Man on Wire" won best documentary at the 81st Academy Awards.

On the other hand, Marsh has spent his career melding real-life events with brisk narratives. His documentaries feature stylized re-enactments, and his occasional forays into fiction filmmaking are inspired by real-life events.

"Wisconsin Death Trip," his first feature film, drew so much from each style that even Marsh isn’t sure whether it tips the scales toward fiction or reality.

"The great thing about doing fictional work and documentary work is that they inform each other," Marsh said. "And the more you do one, the better you get at the other."

This was his second time to screen a film at True/False; the first was in 2008, when "Man On Wire" closed the festival. This is the first time he’s been given the True Vision award.

"I love the vibe of the festival. I love the way that everyone is talking about the films on the streets,” Marsh said.

“I feel truly honored to be given this recognition here because they've got such great taste. I mean, God, I'm so lucky to be recognized by a festival that I adore.”

His most recent film tells the story of a chimpanzee, Nim Chimpsky, who was raised by scientists (well, mostly graduate students) and learned sign language from a young age. As a baby, Nim bonded with the researchers and charmed them with his startling intelligence and personality.

As he grew older, though, the chimpanzee began to act less like a human and more like a wild animal. He became violent. He experienced sexual urges. He was difficult to control.

Eventually, the project was discontinued, and for the next two decades Nim was shunted from one hellish environment to another – a crowded cage at a chimpanzee habitat in Oklahoma, a surgical testing laboratory in New York, a solitary cell at an equine rescue in Texas.

Nim's story is recounted in the film by a parade of his researchers, handlers and friends. For these people, the events of the 1970s are still painfully vivid.

And while the story is superficially about Nim, on a deeper level it's about how the flaws of his human handlers – their hubris, their jealousy and pettiness, their increasingly complex sexual dalliances – impacted Nim's life in ways he couldn't possibly understand.

At every turn, Nim acted exactly the way a chimpanzee would be expected to act; at every turn, it is the human researchers whose decisions seem inexplicable.

"We learned from Sundance that the film has a kind of interesting effect on the audience,” said Marsh of "Project Nim."

“It’s not like 'Man on Wire,' where after the film people were quite happy, and it was kind of uplifting. This film is kind of more complicated both in its story and in its emotional world. It doesn't uplift people, but it does give them lots to think about."

While the director does believe it’s his responsibility to portray all the sides of his subjects, he declines – both in his films and in person – to pass judgment on them.

At a question-and-answer session after Friday’s night’s screening of "Nim," an audience member referred to the lead scientist of the project as the villain, a term Marsh immediately objected to.

"A villain would not be what I would ever call him," Marsh said. "He had very clear reasons for doing what he did; he's a scientist, and he was conducting an experiment.

"Experiments should preclude emotion. But the nature of the experiment required all kinds of emotions, which I don't think he could control, and I don't think he particularly understood them. But I think calling him a villain would be wrong."

Marsh is interested in what happens — events, decisions, actions, choices, he said.

"I'm not really interested in analyzing people's behavior.”

"Man On Wire," which Marsh calls a heist movie, tells the story of a French wire-walker named Philippe Petit. In 1974, Petit, with the help of a few accomplices, broke into the World Trade Center, strung a wire between the twin towers and spent more than an hour walking between them.

The film brought both Marsh and Petit considerable publicity, and Petit joined Marsh and producer Simon Chinn onstage to accept the Oscar.

"It was his Oscar as much as mine,” Marsh said. “I’m keeping it, though. He already tried to steal it once.”

Two of Marsh’s older films are also being screened at True/False. 1998’s "Wisconsin Death Trip" was his first feature film, and "The Burger And The King" – about Elvis Presley and his prodigious appetite – is from Marsh’s television days at the BBC.

Although he’ll be attending a short question-and-answer session after each film, Marsh won’t be actually watching them — he says he never re-watches his films after he's finished them.

After the festival, he said he will go to Ireland, where he’s working on an espionage thriller (fiction, this time) set during the Irish peace process. It will be only the second film he has made in his native British Isles. He expects to finish shooting this summer.

After that, Marsh isn’t certain whether he’ll stay with fiction films or move back to documentaries, though he would like to partner again with Chinn, who produced both "Man On Wire" and "Project Nim." Mostly, Marsh seems to want to keep moving, keep challenging himself with new stories and forms.

“I’m never going to make 'Man On Wire' again,” he said. “That’s a very particular, unique story and a very beautiful story and a gift of a story for a filmmaker. But if I tried to make that film again and again and again and again, I'd be bored out of my ... mind."

"The Burger and the King" will screen at 6 p.m. Sunday. "Project Nim" will screen again at 8:30 p.m. Sunday.

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Barbara Hoppe March 6, 2011 | 12:25 p.m.

Excellent article, well written & focused. Thanks very much. I had to leave the Q&A on Saturday, to catch the next event. I appreciated learning more from the Missourian's excellent article.

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