Sheffield Doc / Fest: Sunday In Review

Sunday began in many ways in similar fashion to Saturday, principally, with tears. And it appeared more and more obvious that tears were very much in fashion with a horde of touching, moving and downright disturbing documentaries on show at this year’s festival. After a long day previously and a late night I was very much ready to catch a snooze during the morning showing of Project Nim – a subject I felt familiar enough with from A-Level Psychology to nap through – how wrong I was.

Project Nim

In many ways it seems as though 2011 is the rise of our slightly less developed furry all over nearest relative – monkeys, apes, chimpanzees etc – very literally in the upcoming The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and, although less revolutionary, here also in Project Nim.

A traditional documentary style, of juxtaposed archive material and contemporary retrospectives on events from those who partook in them, conceals an extremely untraditional story. Nim, a tiny and helpless baby chimp, is forcefully removed from his birth mothers arms and utilized as an avant-garde science experiment that attempts to understand the limits and possibilities of ‘human’ communication by raising Nim in human environs, and educating him to understand and use sign language.

Having been raised from birth by surrogate mother Joanna, the owner of some questionably liberal ethics towards Nim, her position is usurped by the brains behind the project, Herbert Terrace, the comedic villain of the piece. Whether ‘Herb’ really is a bad guy is never fully proved but the documentary certainly does its upmost to stage him as the caricature evil loitering in the background, ever present to instil in Nim a new fear. Other more compassionate members of Nim’s extended family and teachers come off better from the documentarian’s hand of god but in reality none can be expunged of guilt.

For of course Nim isn’t human, which emerges as quite a difficult concept for his trainers to grasp. As he grows and his strength increases playful childhood antics evolve to violent outbursts in keeping with Nim’s natural irascible behaviour. How ridiculous then that the scientist’s are surprised, and one even outraged, by these turns; but as Herb points out it is the scientist’s appropriation of Nim’s gestures as human that distorts the research and ultimately, quite apparently, the character of Nim itself.

What the movie says about human behaviour is perhaps more telling than what it says about Nim’s. For the documentary becomes a microcosmic metaphor for our clear pervasion of the natural world. The scientists are obtuse in their belief that Nim provides the answers to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory of language (that it is inherent only in humans) and in this way the eponymous chimpanzee, however humanist this documentary is, remains a vehicle, a tool, for the lofty academic wars of scientists who are unfazed by the debris they leave in their expeditionary wake.

It is the arrogance of those involved that garners the empathy with Nim in this heart wrenching biopic; an arrogance to fracture something naturally occurring and nurture it in our own ‘godlike’ image. It is an arrogance that leads Nim, unprepared, into the darkest realms of the life of a chimpanzee, a destitute and depraved farm and onwards to the cold slab of a testing centre. It is not that Nim is more special than those he shares these confines with it is the irresponsibility of those that raised him a nominal human and left him to live a chimpanzee.

Project Nim is a slow and detailed journey – there and back again a chimp’s tale – that is utterly beguiling and intensely compelling. It is a call for a little self reflection, and those that don’t find themselves pondering humanity and conscience, and what exactly those mean, are indeed likely less human than the titular chimp.


Gun Fight

The sinister world of the laws, uses, and abuses of small arms and light weapons in America is the central theme of Barbara Kopple’s latest documentary. Beginning with the massacre of 32 students at Virginia Tech by Seung-Hui Cho with legally bought firearms it charts narrowly one wounded students road to advocating tighter gun regulations and more broadly the menacing leverage the National Rifle Association have on the laws themselves.

The NRA’s deplorable central argument rests on the upholding of the Second Amendment, an archaic quotation that reads it is the ‘right of the people to keep and bear arms.’ Of course many things have changed since the constitution was adopted in 1791 but unfortunately many things have remained the same. A large majority of men and women across the United States of America vehemently oppose any infringements on their gun rights and Federal cross state rulings are propagandized against as infringements of both state and singular autonomy.

Moreover urban destitution and a smorgasbord of varying tensions result in more hospital admissions every weekend than the total of the Virginia Tech shootings. In this instance the cause and effect are clearly separated, the cause of gun perpetration – mostly white right-enthusiasts – and those this perpetration effects – mostly black inner city youths – who live on a daily basis with the reality of the Second Amendment’s words.

Gun Fight serves as an interesting update on the themes laid out in Moore’s Bowling for Columbine and indeed it does retread familiar ground but it also serves to till new land for debate. The NRA remain an overbearing political behemoth, a bastion of right wing power, who hold sway over gun regulation rulings which show little sign of changing having been scaled back over the last two years. An interesting highlight is the exposure of ‘gun shows’ where anyone can buy and sell devastating weaponry with no background check and straw sellers who purchase weapons at the shows for those with criminal records. It is these gun shows that the ex Virginia Tech student Colin Goddard wishes to regulate and his passion and persistence is testament to the devastating reality that he, like those in the cities, has witnessed firsthand.

There is a clear dichotomy that emerges between those in the NRA lobbying for the lessening of gun control and those who really feel the effect of this lobbying and it is this that gives the documentary its cutting edge. With such an inveterate issue though perhaps it is time to stop merely charting the to and fros of gun laws and begin to create documentaries that bring the truth home harder and with greater emotional attachment that sadly this piece lacks.


Letter to Elia

Rounding out my festival experience was Martin Scorsese’s new paean to controversial Greek-American actor/director Elia Kazan. Chronicling the legendary director’s works, such as East of Eden, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desireand America, America Scorsese reveals how they influenced and came to inspire and shape his own irrefutable masterpieces. From expressing personal insights like his belief that Kazan’s movies knew him better than he knew himself to more universal notions that the cinema acted like a protective bubble where, for a fleeting time, it was only himself and the movie.

Letter to Elia is a mightily interesting and engrossing portrait of a man and his works, simultaneously charting the ebb and flow of Kazan’s personal life and his works. Scorsese’s eye never wonders far from his devotion to the cinema of Kazan though; even the aftermath of Kazan’s naming of suspected communists in the days of McCarthyism is seen as a new era in his filmmaking, nothing more.

Scorsese’s documentary is a clear example of what Vasari termed the artistic pyramid. That art progresses naturally, not originally, but accumulatively upwards with the foundations supporting the new layers, steadily increasing in height, ultimately towards perfection. And even though this last part may not always be true it’s certainly abundantly relevant in this feature as Scorsese’s personal experiences are a great introduction to an old hand and a range of films that transcend their period; framing eternal themes of morality, generational angst, motivation, alienation and inclusion. At any rate here’s hoping for A Letter to Scorsese in fifty years time.

This serves to illustrate that sometimes the films a director makes are as important as those they were influenced by and most of all that great filmmaking comes from an intensely personal place. It will plant in audiences a deep desire to visit, or revisit, these old classics and in this great director, even though it was my last screening, I found in my own cinematic viewing a new beginning.


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