Tuesday, June 14, 2011

SFF Review: Project Nim (James Marsh, 2011)

James Marsh's anticipated follow up to his 2008 Academy Award winning documentary, Man on Wire, is the extraordinary and riveting tale of a special chimpanzee named Nim. Project Nim intricately tracks the chimpanzee's life over a number of decades, following his selection in a 1970's linguistics experiment to be raised exclusively by humans to see if he could be taught to communicate using sign language.

Some scientists, Columbia University Professor Herbert Terrace included, believed that a chimp raised in a human family, and using ASL (American Sign Language) would shed light on the way that language is acquired by humans. Nim is taken by Terrace to a home on Manhattan's Upper West Side and placed in the care of his former sexual partner Stephanie LaFarge and her family.

Stephanie was instructed by Terrace to raise Nim as though he was a human child, which she takes to the lengths of breast feeding him and clothing him in diapers. Nim's immediate learning and development is inspiring, but without a disciplined learning schedule, and free reign around the property, Nim starts to take over. The project derails when Stephanie claims that Terrace's scientific obsession with teaching him to communicate was interfering with his capacity to experience a 'childhood'.

He is removed from their home and taken to a lavish estate, where the hippie teachers Terrace employs come and work with him. You find yourself questioning the reasoning behind this experiment, and whether Terrace cares more about the media coverage and his attractive proteges than the well-being of this animal. To what positive end could taking a primitive animal from his mother and domesticating him come to? How did they expect to control his primitive instincts and urges? As we discover later on, wrongly and cruelly so.

Upheaval follows as time and again people meddle with Nim's development, seemingly out of frustration that the results they desired weren't being realised. Terrace employs a number of unqualified, inexperienced linguists to work exclusively on Nim's communication, often restricting them to working in a small windowless classroom. How these teachers interacted with one another is almost as fascinating as Nim's story, and ultimately become the most destructive aspect of his life.

For one reason or another; be it jealousy, affairs, disagreements over methods, and even from suffering serious injury through an attack by Nim, many of them are forced out of involvement in the project. Human emotion, ambition and selfishness frequently override ethics and responsible action. Nim's human qualities were exploited for science, at the expense of his chimp ones, resulting in his inability to interact with fellow chimps later in his life and survive in a primitive environment. Consistently abandoned by those he bonded with, Nim is thrown all over the place, from a caged prison-like facility with other chimpanzees, to his near-fatal involvement in animal testing. It is a gripping tale.

The values and success of the program are questioned via an extraordinary mix of extensive archival footage (from every stage of Nim's life) reenactments and revealing contemporary interviews with the various carers and eccentric individuals that were involved with him over the course of his unsettling, but fascinating life. It becomes quite a thrilling drama as new and more destructive individuals step into Nim's life to try and take over.

While the inventive experiment wanted to prove nurture over nature, the film is less an exploitation of animal rights one, but simultaneously becomes a biographical account of this chimp, and an engrossing study of humanity. Through Nim we learn just as much about the humans; how naive and exploitative they were (often for personal enjoyment) and how much they underestimated his awareness. This is what leaves you bewildered, angry, unsettled and shaking your head in disbelief. Some of the people we hear from are passionate, clearly loved Nim, and are willingly outspoken. Others (like Terrace) dodged the tough questions with indefinite, misleading answers.

I have not invested this much emotion into a film in some time. I was absorbed from the opening minutes. This brilliant documentary will likely be one of the most powerful cinematic experiences of the year. It is a harrowing account of the tragic life of a beautiful creature. It is what happens when human emotion botches well-meaning science.

My Rating: 5 Stars (A)


  1. Andy giving away 5 stars so early in the year ;D

    I really liked "Man On Wire"

    I'll look out for this one Andy - good review.

  2. Whoa I definitely read the last sentence of the second paragraph the wrong way.

  3. @ Sam - Thanks for reading. Yeah 5 Stars for 'Project Nim' and 'A Separation', and possibly for 'Tree of Life'. I have to watch it again before I decide.

    @ BT - Oops, that does read quite bad haha. I can see how you thought that.

  4. Crazy to see what can happen to a science experiment when scientists decide to stop being scientific ain't it? Truly looking forward to how mass audience react to this film.

    Great review young man - glad to see you dug it!

  5. Great review. I see this is coming to Chicago in about a month. Definitely checking it out now on account of this piece.