Anticipation – Day One FFF 2011

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Project Nim - Opening Night Movie

It’s 6pm and SunnyStefani is with Mrs. LanceAround, Number One Daughter and Number One Son as we rush to the Winter Park Theatre to be first in line for this year’s festival. Anticipation is running high.

Surprisingly, we got beaten to the front of the line by a gentleman who’s lady escort refers to as a tall, dark & handsome guy.  He won’t give me his name, but he beat me to first in line even though he uses a wheelchair!  I ask why he’s so enthusiastic that he rushed to be first in line when his female companion says, “It’s because we thought the movie started at 6.” We all chuckle.

The opening movie is entitled Project Nim.  It’s a documentary by James Marsh–the Academy Award winning documentarian for the 2009 film Man on Wire. The film tells the story of a chimpanzee who was taken from her mother at two weeks old to be raised by humans. The study, by a Columbia University linguist, was an attempt to see if animals other than humans could learn sign language. You can feel the electricity in the air. Everyone’s excited about this year’s festival.

Another patron named Mary is near the front of the line despite the fact that she mistakenly went to the Enzian first before being redirected to the Winter Park Theatre. This is Mary’s first festival.  She was thinking about it for several years. It’s Friday and she has no other pressing engagements so this is the year for her to enjoy her first film festival!

Kyle has never been to a film festival before. He’s heard good things about this movie from his date who volunteers with chimpanzees so she wanted to see Project Nim. If he likes it, he’ll be back.

Two women, Connie Jordan and her friend, are here. Connie says she started showing independent films at the Orlando Museum of Art over 26 years ago and helped to convince Mr. Tiedtke to start a theatre. She’s been going to the FFF since the beginning twenty years ago.

Matt overhears my conversation.  “People take film festivals very seriously,” he quips before acknowledging he’s never been to a film festival.  “This is our first one,” chimes in Evie Dunbar, who’s eager to get her name in print on my blog. “Most definitely,” she acknowledges as she I say that sentence out lout, “It’s fun to see your words printed.”

An FFF staff member introduces us to Stephanie LaFarge, who was Nim’s first human mother. I remind her that she is the one that is referred to in the movie literature as the promiscuis, rich hippie.  She laughs in complete agreement with that characterization. Her easy going nature is obvious and we develop an instant rapport.

I ask her how it feels to be a movie star. Instantly her smile drops as she says, “I’m not a movie star.” She thinks the most important thing is what it’s like for a civilian to have someone like James Marsh chronicle her life.  “It brings to light the very, very, very poor choices that were made as scientists and as human beings regading the life of an animal.  I’m here because I want to make amends for what we did to Nim.”

She sees her work with Nim as a violation of nature; inducing him into thinking he was a human being and that he became an experimental animal overnight.  “We exploited his animal feelings in order to pursue a scientific goal.”

I ask her if she’s been speaking with PETA.  She acknowledges that she now works for an animal welfare program—The ASPCA–because of her awareness of how human beings can unintentionally be harmful to animals. She has a Ph.d. in Psychology—the degree she was working on during the timeline of the film.  She was working with Dr. Herbert Terrace, of whom she says “had an exciting vision to create a paradigm shift comparable to the shift Galileo or Freud created. His goal was to demonstrate that other creatures could use word order language. Any film, even a documentary, can only tell part of the whole story. There’s nothing inaccurate in the film,” she says. “How does it portray you?”I ask. “None of the human beings stand out as very admirable,” she admits. “Being in a film created by James Marsh has the experience of being like those tribes who say, ‘if you take my picture you steal my soul.’ I can see how they feel that way. James Marsh didn’t steal anything but he has a phenomenal ability to extract the story from you.”

Speaking of James Marsh she continues, “An artist takes raw material and arranges it, manipulates it, in such a way that it gives the audience an experience. He took all the material we gave him and created a film we believe in.”

At this point, the staff member returns to usher Stephanie into the theatre and we walk in behind her with a lot of anticipation about the film we’re about to see…

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