Sunday, July 24, 2011


Directed by James Marsh

Nim Chimpsky was born before I was and I can’t say I had ever really heard of this famous chimpanzee before PROJECT NIM, James Marsh’s follow up to his Oscar winning documentary, MAN ON WIRE. You only have to meet Nim once though to be completely taken in by his antics and thoroughly impressed by his abilities. Nim was born into a science experiment that would shape his entire life and before he died of a heart attack at 26 years old, he would be known to millions as the chimp who could talk to people.

Marsh has a wealth of archival footage at his disposal for PROJECT NIM and he makes great use of it, integrating passionate interviews and some respectfully recreated footage into the fold. As a result, Marsh is able to introduce his audience to Nim at as early a stage as two weeks old, when he was taken from his mother and placed into a family of nine. The hypothesis that Nim would either prove or disprove would frame the argument for nature vs. nurture. What if a chimpanzee was raised in a family as if one of their own? Would he adopt their practices and more importantly, would he learn to speak with them? Marsh then introduces us to the multitude of people who would play temporary caretaker to Nim over the years, from the mother who would first take him in and let him roam free on her hippy-esque commune, to the teachers who would never be the same for having spent time with him. Dedication to this animal is quite high considering how many times he has bitten these very same people.

For no other reason other than natural growth and progress, Nim eventually became too big and too potentially volatile to continue the experiment. Before it would end though, Nim would be able to use sign language to express dozens of words and, more importantly, it would appear that he would be able to string those words together to express actual thoughts. Nim’s transition to more traditional chimpanzee captivity environments would prove especially difficult. This is a chimp that has always been a part of the family and now he was living behind bars. It is a cruelty that would ordinarily seem socially acceptable if it weren’t for all that Nim had come to know in his life. He was always surrounded by love, which itself gave the chimp something of an ego, but now it was as though he was discarded by everyone he ever knew. And so animal cruelty would go from being seen as a purely physical act to emotionally damaging as well.

Marsh presents PROJECT NIM as succinctly as he can and allows his audience to gage what they consider to be cruel all on their own. His subject choices continue to show a fascination with the colorful and the eccentric and he proves with this project that he is a strong voice in today’s vast documentary landscape. By introducing us to Nim, he reminds us of the dangers of using animals for our own advancement, no matter how well intentioned we may be. Teaching Nim was the focus but it was actually Nim who would teach those he touched about themselves and their own baser instincts they may not have been aware of. And now, thanks to Marsh, many more will be able to learn these same lessons.


Anonymous said...

Anxious to see how much sap is employed to manufacture engagement in this doc. Is it truly substantive or simply pulling on tired heart strings? Your review raised some questions for me. More curious to see it than I was. Thanks.

Black Sheep said...

I honestly did not find any sap involved. The people involved were all emotionally attached to varying degrees and they got sappy at times but at no point did Marsh just lets us watch the chimp just being adorable to tug at those strings you mentioned. Definitely worth checking out and a strong follow-up to the incredible, Man on Wire.