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Project Nim - Review

Project Nim

Review by Jack Foley

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

JAMES Marsh’s Project Nim is a must-see documentary that is guaranteed to leave you feeling with mixed emotions.

It follows the story of Nim, a chimpanzee, who in 1973 became the focus of an experiment by behavioural psychologist Herbert Terrace that attempted to challenge Noam Chomsky’s thesis that only humans can have language.

This involved separating the baby Nim from her natural mother, placing him in a human family and then teaching him sign language in a human-only environment.

It ended with an older, more emotionally frail Nim being locked away at an animal research ranch, where he struggled to find happiness until being reunited with the few friends he had made along the way.

That nutshell only really tells half the story. Nim’s journey is a difficult one, to say the least, which brought him into contact with many people and institutions.

It’s a story of suffering in some ways, and personal courage in others; of human arrogance and heroism as well as a sobering cautionary tale. And while deeply sad, it’s also strangely inspirational.

Marsh, as he did with the similarly excellent Man on Wire, allows Nim’s story to unfold via first-person interviews with the people involved – including Herbert Terrace – and footage and photography of Nim that’s allowed to unfold in an almost narrative fashion.

Hence, the story of Nim’s life sometimes plays out like a drama, especially for those who may not have heard of his story before.

As such, it’s often amusing, sometimes shocking, occasionally awkward and frequently anger inducing. Nim’s treatment is at best naive and sometimes downright unforgivable.

But he does make some valuable friends along the way, including the likes of Bob Ingersoll, who befriended him and continued to champion his cause no matter where life took him (whether being sold for experimentation or held at empty mansions).

Ingersoll emerges as a genuine hero, as does Nim, and their relationship provides the film with a life-affirming element that may well restore viewers’ overall faith in humanity. It’s great to hear from Bob throughout too, relaying events as much from the audience point of view as his own.

The overall result is another of this year’s documentaries that’s worth making the time to see – and one that provides a fascinating companion piece to the newly released Rise of the Planet of the Apes given the similarity between them.

Certificate: 12A
Running time: 99mins
UK Release Date: August 12, 2011