Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the sleep-paralysis documentary The Nightmare opening in select theaters, we look back on other docs that boldly or effectively employ dramatic recreations.
Before directing Project Nim, James Marsh made another acclaimed documentary, Man On Wire, that’s notable for its stylized dramatic recreations. Project Nim also features stylized recreations. The difference between the two films is that, with Project Nim, the story of a chimpanzee who was the subject of a sign-language experiment in the early ’70s, it’s less obvious what’s staged and what isn’t.
Some critics, who went into the film with the benefit of a press kit, made note of the recreations in their reviews. “Marsh weaves dramatic re-creations into this film, so that sometimes we are seeing actual documentary footage, and at other times, we’re seeing actors or even (although you won’t notice it) animatronics,” Roger Ebert wrote in his. “How this substitution fits with traditional documentary ethics I will set aside. It produces a very absorbing film.” Peter Elliott, a British actor who specializes in portraying apes—he played Simba in Gorillas In The Mist and consulted on Congo—also did an interview with The New Yorker around the time of the film, in which he talks about dressing up in a chimpanzee suit to shoot scenes for the movie, a performance for which he was granted the title of “primate choreographer.” None of this was a secret. The names of several actors are listed in the credits. It just wasn’t well advertised.
The question of ethics comes in when you try to to parse out which parts, exactly, of Project Nim are recreations. Nim was raised among humans, and spent his early life with a hippie family that treated him like one of his human siblings before he became too aggressive and was shuttled from caretaker to caretaker, eventually being sold to a research facility. Actors are listed as playing the parts of Stephanie LaFarge and her husband Wer, Nim’s first caretakers, as well as a later caretaker, Renee Falitz, and Dr. Lemmon, owner of the Oklahoma primate facility where Nim was born and returned after Project Nim ended. Some of this can be traced to the opening scene where Nim is taken from his mother, which obviously features “Stephanie” and an animatronic chimp. (The dogs in the movie were real.) The actress playing Falitz shows up in the scene where Nim attacks her and bites her face, something that it’s probably for the best was not captured on film. Beyond that, things get vague.
Director James Marsh is coy about the subject in the press kit, saying, “we created and shot some imagery to illustrate the events in the film once we had done a lot of editing of the story.” But, as he said in an interview with Slant magazine about the film, as far as he’s concerned, recreations are a practical matter, meant to fill in the gaps where archival footage is not available. “It’s not really a question of moral principles. I use recreations because I feel like I have to. I need to do it because I have to evoke certain images to tell the story,” he said.
Sadly, however, the ambiguity surrounding the footage in Project Nim doesn’t provide any comfort for viewers disturbed by the film’s depiction of Nim’s later years in a primate facility. According to Marsh, the footage of a terrified Nim meeting another chimp for the first time was archival, as is the footage of Nim in a hepatitis vaccine lab—two of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film.
Availability: Project Nim is available on DVD through Netflix or to rent or purchase through the major digital services. It’s also currently streaming on HBO Go and HBO Now.