Project Nim Dir. James Marsh

[Roadside Attractions; 2011]

Styles: documentary
Others: Man On Wire, Koko: A Talking Gorilla

James Marsh’s documentaries do a great job of hitting a zeitgeist without relying on it. 9/11 culture gave Man On Wire a boost, even if the story dealt more with Philippe Petit than the Twin Towers he high-wired between. Likewise, the internet’s intense enthusiasm for baby animals will probably increase interest for Project Nim, even if the film hits darker marks than your average ZooBorns post.

Nim is Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised by a human family in the early 1970s as part of a language study. He quickly learned to communicate through signing, and the early part of the film is full of adorable anecdotes and footage, even as Nim moves from the Upper West Side to a rural estate due to his increasing size and violence. Adding to the absurdity is Herb Terrace, the professor in charge of the experiment, who seems as territorial and manipulative with Nim’s female caretakers as Nim is.

When the project hits a wall — Nim either can only express selfish impulses or isn’t inspired to do anything else — Terrace abandons the chimp, who is eventually sold to a medical research lab. It’s an outcome that rings tragic but true, with Nim incapable of engaging with his natural environment after his isolated time in the limelight. It almost serves as a metaphor for reality TV stardom, with Nim’s depression and bafflement not unlike, say, Jon Gosselin’s. While the chimp is eventually rescued through the efforts of a former caretaker and animal rights activists, he remains an oddity, transformed by human interaction to no one’s apparent betterment.

Despite a few Errol Morris-like affectations (the side-wipe that accompanies an interview subject’s departure from the narrative is especially annoying), Marsh lets the humans involved do their best to dignify their actions, with some (like the stoner grad student who bonded with Nim in Oklahoma) coming off more sympathetic than others (Terrace, unapologetic for his treatment of… well, everyone). Although Marsh can’t help but attach human traits to Nim through the narrative, he leaves open the possibility that we’re wholly misguided to do so. The study may have written off as a failure, but the film suggests we can still learn plenty from its subject. At the very least, it reminds us that wild animals don’t stay babies forever.

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