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Project Nim - 2011 - Movie Review

Monkeying With Mother Nature

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Project Nim - 2011 - Movie Review

Nim Chimpsky

Roadside Attractions/HBO
In 1973, a Columbia University psychologist named Herbert Terrace initiated a research experiment to test whether a chimpanzee that was raised as a human child and taught to use sign language would be able to live and communicate with humans. An infant chimp - named Nim Chimpsky in honor of Noam Chomsky -- was taken from his mother and given to one of Terrace's students, Stephanie LaFarge, who, along with her husband and seven children raised Nim as a member of the family. The chimp learned sign language, but could he fit in to human society?

Monkey See, Monkey Do?

Nim lived with and was trained by several successive surrogate moms during a two year period. He actually learned enough American Sign Language to communicate his basic needs and wishes to his human companions, and he even expanded his vocabulary with a few signs he invented himself.

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

Nim Chimpsky Treated As Human Child

Roadside Attractions/HBO
Ultimately, Nim's story is sad and unsettling, and it raises profound questions about the human exploitation of animals subjected to social and scientific research. Nim's story is particularly disturbing because the young chimp is such a charming character. And, because director James Marsh develops the documentary narrative in such a dramatic and engaging way.

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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Film Details:

  • 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

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