A team of chimps wrote this review for Judge Daryl Loomis.
"Give orange me give eat orange me eat orange give me eat orange give me you."—The longest recorded sentence from Nim.
Chimpanzees are the closest relative to humans in the animal kingdom and they fascinate us, so much that people have heated discussions about the identity of Tarzan's pet from films made six decades ago. Pathetic as that may be, it underscores the fact that these primates exhibit uncannily human behavior, with clearly drawn emotions and an almost comic playfulness that we're drawn to, in spite of the fact that they have been known to bite people's faces off from time to time. For those same reasons, chimps are also used as experimental fodder, both medically and sociologically. It was for science that a young chimp was able to capture the hearts of America, and Project Nim documents the fascinating and tragic life story of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp they tried to make human.
Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) outdoes himself with this latest documentary, an object lesson in the hubris and lack of compassion that can plague mankind, and specifically the scientific community. It's the story of Nim Chimpsky, named for Noam Chomsky as something of a joke after the linguist wrote that humanity was the only species equipped for speech. A few days after he was born, Dr. Herbert Terrace, professor at Columbia University, stole Nim from his mother and handed him to Stephanie LaFarge, a research assistant and former lover of the professor. With no knowledge of how to care for a primate, she brought him into her home with her husband and their seven children.
The intention was to teach Nim sign language and, to an extent, she did. But she also got him stoned, let him run roughshod on her house, and let him explore her body. After a couple of years, when it became clear that they were unfit for the study, Terrace brought Nim to a mansion in upstate New York with Laura-Ann Petito, his new teacher (with whom Terrace would wind up having an affair, as well). It was there that they made their largest progress. Through many teachers over the next few years, Nim was able to learn some 125 signs. Amazing as that might be, chimps grow up and, when they do, they become ultra-strong and aggressive. After several bloody incidents and a general lack of continued progress, Terrace ended the study and sent Nim back to the research facility where he came from. That betrayal was only the beginning of the tragedy that became Nim's life.
As depressing as some of Project Nim can be, it's also a supremely compelling and well-constructed documentary, a combination of archival footage, talking heads, and cleverly cut in reconstructions that give the full picture on the motivations behind the experiment and the life of Nim Chimpsky. From his teachers and some of their horror stories to the people who knew him later in his life, it's easy to see that, while in many ways Nim was a regular chimpanzee, his personality and training also made him uniquely able to touch the lives of the people he encountered. The experiment, based on sloppy and stupid science, didn't work, and it's appalling how little remorse Terrace seems to have for the fate of the chimp or the people surrounding them. With the addition of his inability to keep his paws off his students, Terrace comes off like a grade-A sleazebag. Most of the others show a certain level of compassion for the chimp and really tried to help him, but what they were involved in was an abomination and, good as Nim's life may have seemed, was ultimately a very cruel thing.
Imparting human qualities onto animals, especially in a scientific realm, is dangerous and leads to the sloppiness of the experiment. Marsh shows this brilliantly, but does not take a moral stance on the experiment or the result. He keeps an even hand and lets the people involved speak for themselves, delivering more questions than answers while still making the film both entertaining and heartrending. Project Nim is a stronger film and a more important story than Man on Wire, though his earlier film is more purely fun. James Marsh is a highly skilled filmmaker who is able to provide both a super compelling story and an informative treatise on the issues. Good show from Marsh, all the way around.
The DVD of Project Nim from Liongate is acceptable, but is nothing particularly special. The anamorphic image varies quite a bit, which is expected given the archival source footage. The new interviews are sharp and nice, while the older stuff is definitely a mixed bag. It looks as good as it can, but ranging from Super-8 to Betamax, there's no doubt that some of it looks pretty poor. The sound is similar. It claims a 5.1 mix, but since most of the footage comes from mono or stereo sources and the rest are talking heads, it may as well be a two channel track. The extras come in the form of a better than average making of featurette that runs half an hour and a fifteen minute piece on Bob Ingersoll, along with a trailer to finish it off.
Project Nim is a sad but extraordinary film documenting the hubris that causes humankind to demonstrate their superiority over animals, even while trying to prove how much "like us" they are. Filled with conflict and no easy answers, there is plenty of room for further discussion about the fate of Nim Chimpsky and the overall purpose of animal experimentation, be that medical or sociological. How this didn't make the final Oscar cut is beyond me, but it's certainly the best documentary I've seen this year.
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