Friday, August 19, 2011

Project Nim

Project Nim
By James Marsh, 2011

My friend and I have a running joke about all things primate: chimps, gorillas, apes, etc. There isn’t a specific joke we have going, but we both find them hilarious and terrifying. Chimps are scary. As cute and human-like as they might seem, they are unpredictable and incredibly strong. With the new Planet of the Apes reboot just released in theatres, my friend and I thought we were up for a special blend of fun and scares. But with quite good reviews, maybe we ought to take that film more seriously before venturing to the theatre. The other primate-focused film in theatres right now is Project Nim, and after listening to an NPR podcast about a similar scenario, I recently opted to choose reality over science-fiction.

Project Nim is James Marsh’s documentary on Nim Chimpsky, a chimp raised solely by humans in the 1970s. Nim was taken from his mother by psychologist Herbert S. Terrace soon after being born in order to see if he could be taught American Sign Language. The film follows Nim’s journey through several homes, including his initial homestead where he was treated more like a child in a family than an animal, and a research building in the country where the comings and goings of psychologists and students would cause the chimp to act out in anger and revolt.

The documentary is a well-executed, suspenseful piece of filmmaking. Marsh sets up the story with a cast of interesting characters that include the types of heroes and villains one would find in a fiction narrative. The central character is always Nim, but he is as complex as any human you will see in a documentary this year; he becomes a type of antihero that you pity but also fear. The story is constructed with the use of great historical footage, and the interviews are quite intimate and direct at times, reminding me of Errol Morris documentaries like The Thin Blue Line and Standard Operating Procedure.

Although a metaphorical motif of having characters literally ‘removed from the picture’ is a little forced, as are some of the reenactments, overall Project Nim is a very interesting film. It raises many questions about our relationship with animals and the underlying, mysterious feelings these captive primates have. And Marsh seems to revel in these types of fantastical stories in our history, as he did in Wisconsin Death Trip and Man on Wire. These stories aren’t widely known, so let’s hope he continues to unearth many more and bring them to life, so we as an audience can join in on the discovery.

4 out of 5

Sunday, August 7, 2011

2000s: Billy the Kid

Billy the Kid
By Jennifer Venditti, 2007

I first saw Billy the Kid at one of my first Hot Docs Film Festival screenings. I was to finish my Film degree at York University the following year and excited to take part in what would become my favourite Toronto film festival. The film stuck with me over the years (Billy and director Jennifer Venditti are featured in the title bar of the site) and I was pleased to pick up a copy not too long ago. I rewatched the film last night.

Billy the Kid is a 2007 documentary about Billy Price, a sophomore high school student living in small-town Maine. Billy is intelligent, outspoken and loves karate, metal music and girls. He sounds like any other teenage boy, but in another way, Billy is quite different. He has an obvious social awkwardness to him; one which doctors said early on would mean he would need to be institutionalized. More testing revealed that Billy was perfectly fine to live at home with his family, which he does, and he attends a regular high school.

Venditti's film follows Billy's day to day activities, aided by a voiceover where Billy talks about his views on life, love and his personal mental health. He is mostly seen bouncing around the nearby woods or biking around the streets of his town, talking to local kids about his fascination with horror movies. A narrative takes shape when Billy meets a local girl working at a diner. With his heart aflutter, Billy woos the girl, and the magic of seeing someone with their first love is all caught on camera. All of this conjures up nostalgia for one’s own pining and high school crushes, but the film isn’t without its concerns.

One can’t help but wonder while watching Billy the Kid about exploitation in documentary. Billy’s social issues are confirmed in the DVD extras as Aspberger’s Syndrome. Venditti may not have been aware of this while filming, but she knew that something was amiss. So one has to question, is the director’s intentions sympathetic or exploitive? Billy obviously makes for a great character; his insights are profound, mature and hilarious. And Venditti’s commentary suggests that she had found someone whom we as an audience can all relate to, someone who displays all the awkwardness of coming of age as a teenager. But one can't help but wonder if she is also poking fun at Billy. There's a moment where we see Billy pick up his guitar, take his shirt off and rock out to a metal concert video on his TV. He is obviously hamming it up for the camera, but then the view is switched to outside of his window, and instead of hearing both the concert and Billy playing along, we hear just Billy. I was taken back by that small section when I rewatched the film, wondering if Venditti was intentionally teasing Billy behind his back. Or is she just showing an example of a memory we are all familiar with; one where we are back in our teenage bedrooms, doing things the rest of the world doesn't know we're doing? Whatever the reason, the film itself is a good conversation piece regarding the moral grounds of documentaries, and Venditti offers a lot of touching moments.

Billy the Kid is an enjoyable experience because we as an audience are tested by Billy's brazenness and are reminded of our own trials and triumphs when we were in high school. You can tell that Venditti does care for her subject and rewatching the film, I can tell why I was first so enamored with it when I first saw it. It's the tale of an outsider, being himself and finding his way through the ups and downs of life.

3 ½ out of 5