Nim is the chimpanzee who in the mid-1970s became the subject of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Taken from its mother soon after birth and raised like a human child by a family in a brownstone on the upper West Side of New York in the 1970s, Nim appears to learn a sort of sign language and is soon housed in a large mansion with his own teaching staff. But Nim is outgrowing his environment and is sent to the Black Beauty animal sanctuary, where he is the sole chimp - and an unhappy one. After five years, Project Nim is shut down and the subject of the experiment is an abandoned and lonely animal, whose life has been interrupted, damaged and derailed.
Review by Louise Keller:
I went through a myriad of emotions in this extraordinarily moving documentary about a chimp that becomes an experiment and the people whose lives it touches. Director James Marsh is obviously drawn by extraordinary stories; who can forget his Academy Award winning documentary Man on Wire about tightrope walker Philippe Petit's 'artistic crime of the century' when he walked the wire between the two towers of New York's World Trade Centre in 1974?
This documentary is extraordinary for a whole range of reasons. Based on the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess, the film unravels events beginning in 1973 with a scientific experiment that aspires to discover whether a chimp can be taught to communicate language. Never knowing what was going to happen next, I was captivated, amused and fascinated in addition to being shocked and disturbed by the results.
Taking the form of interviews woven into a dialogue together with re-enactments, archive footage and photographs, we meet some of the key players, who recount the part they play. Project Nim is the brainchild of Professor Herb Terrace of Columbia University who prises the two week-old baby chimp from his mother and gives him to Stephanie (played by actress Reagan Leonard), a psychology student, into whose large hippie family he is adopted and treated like a baby. The cute factor is high in these early scenes as the chimp starts learning sign language to communicate his needs and wants.
But there are many changes in store for Nim, who quickly outgrows cute and becomes big and strong, smart, and manipulative, capable of (and occasionally guilty of) doing serious damage to any one of his carers. I found the genuine affection his carers obviously felt for their little ward extremely moving as Nim is put into the most deplorable situations, submitted for animal testing at a medical research centre. Psychology graduate, researcher, interpreter for the deaf or project co-ordinator, each assumes a unique and special relationship with Nim.
With elements that are stranger than fiction, I won't reveal the intricacies and details of what happens to Nim, but the journey is wholly involving. However, we are left with a wide range of emotions and definitive ideas about what should and should not happen when it comes to interfering with nature and taking animals from their natural habitats. Once seen, you will never forget this powerful, potent and moving film that tells us as much about ourselves as it does the little chimp.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
We respond to this melancholy story both emotionally and intellectually, upset by what happens to Nim when short sighted scientists brake into Nim's life as a newborn, only to end up five years later having to put him into another strange environment amongst his peers. Evidently nobody thought this experiment through to its logical conclusion, which is a sad indictment on otherwise intelligent people.
Compiled from actual footage and stills taken in the 70s and complemented by interviews with the participants all these years later (some of them played by actors), the film has the cinematic signature of the filmmaking team of producer Simon Chenn and director James Marsh, who made Man on Wire (2008), the excellent doco about French acrobat Philippe Petit who performed the world's greatest high wire walk on a wire between the towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974; same era as the Project Nim story, as it happens.
The time jumps from the 70s to the present work well, adding a reflective quality to the interviews, which also adds texture to the film. Marsh unravels the story with care, letting out the developments like a storyteller wanting to enthral his listeners. The mood begins with promise and hope, with fun and play as the tiny chimp is taken into a carefree hippy lifestyle in the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Plenty of detail is revealed and the interactions between Nim and the humans who live with him or cross his path makes for engaging cinema. Beneath it all, though, is a sense that Nim was never meant to be treated like a guinea pig, if you'll pardon the expression. This unease swells as the story unfolds and we see Nim's quality of life deteriorate.
The filmmaking technique used is a valid structure, combining re-enactment, animatronics and actors with the real footage. The risk is that by blending these elements we are insecure about the veracity of the elements that are 'inserted'. All the same, it's a story well worth telling; it's always relevant and it reminds us quite poignantly that humans are the only species that regularly and frequently make stupid decisions that cause much harm.
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PROJECT NIM (M)
CAST: Documentary, featuring Prof. Herb Terrace (himself), Bob Ingersoll (himself), with Bern Cohen as Dr William Lemmon, Reagan Leonard as Stephanie LaFarge, Michael LePera (as Wer LaFarge), Renee Falitz (as Sarah Sakaan)
PRODUCER: Simon Chinn
DIRECTOR: James Marsh
SCRIPT: Based on the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human, by Elizabeth Hess
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Michael Simmonds
EDITOR: Jinx Godfrey
MUSIC: Dickon Hinchliffe
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Markus Kirschner
RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Icon
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: September 29, 2011