Monkey See, Monkey Do?
Nim was learning to live and play among humans, and he was treated as though he were a somewhat indulged human child. One surrogate mom even gave him alcohol to drink and marijuana to smoke.
Nim's social responses indicated complex emotions and he was smartly manipulative of the people in his circle. But, as he grew older, stronger and more aggressive, it was increasingly clear that Nim was not human and that he could never be taught to fit into a human social environment. Nim the endearing baby chimp became Nim the monster teenager. He bit his handlers, he mauled one of his surrogate moms, knew no restraints to his emotions and couldn't moderate his physical strength.
When Nim became a danger to those assigned to care for him, Terrace abruptly terminated the experiment and Nim was shipped back to the Oklahoma primate research center where he'd been born. He was a complete social outcast. He couldn't live among the humans he'd know all of his life, but he didn't know how to relate to other chimpanzees either. He was isolated, miserable and confused. After he was used as a subject in several additional experiments, he died of a heart attack at age 26, which is about half the average lifespan for chimpanzees.
Science and Storytelling
In Project Nim, Marsh is reaching into the past to recount a sequence of events that have run their course. What happened to Nim has already been covered in Elizabeth Hess’ eponymous nonfiction book -- which is, in fact, the basis for this documentary.
Marsh, winner of the 2009 Best Documentary Oscar for Man On Wire, a film that was also based on a book, is adept at documentarizing (to coin a word) historical events already chronicled in print.
As he did in Man On Wire, in Project Nim, Marsh freely used dramatic reenactments intercut with actual archival footage to create a comprehensible and compelling narrative flow. Use of reenactment is effective in both films, but it feels more appropriate -- more truthful -- in Man On Wire because that film is about an event that was in essence a staged stunt.
On the other hand, in Project Nim, about an official recognized academic experiment, staged reenactments - including the use of animatronics - seem a stretch. They're well done and effective, but seem to diminish the film's authenticity. Unless, of course, Marsh is smartly, slyly suggesting through style that the experiment itself was less than authentic. That's my interpretation. You may or may not agree.
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- Title: Project Nim - 2011
- Director: James Marsh
- Release Date: July 8, 2011
- Running Time: 93 mins.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Locations: New York City and suburbs
- Language: English
- Country: USA
- Distribution Company: Roadside Attractions/Home Box Office (HBO)
- Official Website