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Movie Reviews

Project Nim



Reviewed by: Jason Coyle

Released: 8th July 2011

Directed by: James Marsh

Starring: Bob Angelini, Bern Cohen, Renne Falitz, Nim Chimpsky

‘It was the 70s’. This phrase in many ways sums up Project Nim, James Marsh’s follow up to 2008’s superb documentary Man on Wire. Project Nim follows the life of Nim Chimpsky (a play on linguist Noam Chomsky which is curiously not mentioned in the film) from the moment he is taken from his mother, a couple of weeks after giving birth, through the various stages of his life. The idea came from a Professor atNew York’sColumbiaUniversity, Herb Terrace who wanted to take a chimp and have him raised like a child in a normal household to see if he could learn to communicate using sign language.

Professor Terrace is interviewed for the film, and unintentionally becomes the villain of the piece. The first part of the experiment was to find a family for Nim to become part of. That family was the Lefarges.  Whilst talking about the experiment, he lets slip the fact that he once had a sexual relationship with Stephanie Lefarge. This 1970s style free love era is thematic throughout the film. Lefarge is an extraordinary interviewee tossing out amazing information such as the fact that she breastfed Nim when he first arrived. She is a documentary filmmaker’s dream. There is a battle in her house between Nim and her husband as to who is the dominant male, and it is at this point that it first seems to dawn on these people that Nim is not a growing baby but a wild animal. That Nim is not domesticated is brought home to the various teachers throughout the experiment who had suffered injuries from Nim biting and lashing out. Nim is only behaving as he has been genetically programmed to do, whereas the people in the story seem to act with only self regard. One exception to this is Bob Ingersall, a pot smoking Grateful Dead fan, who helps take of care of Nim towards the end of his life. Yet with the exception of Bob it is the people who are shown to be the selfish species in this film. There is a real lack of accountability from the people involved. Nim does indeed learn some sign language words but at what cost? There is a succession of teachers (mostly young women hand picked by Professor Terrace) who talk about their time with Nim and how they give him alcohol and pot. The whole experiment comes across as a last gasp of the hippy era complete with free love and drug taking and a disregard to the welfare of Nim in general.

There are some upsetting scenes such as when Professor Terrace ends the experiment and Nim is sold to an animal testing lab. Nim and others live in small cages and this especially cruel knowing the need for movement and freedom that chimps

crave. But Nim does have Bob and he does come to try and save Nim from this. Stephanie Lefarge also comes back into the picture to see Nim one last time. There is something moving about both Stephanie and Bob who, despite the years having passed, still care enough to try and help Nim – although Stephanie may have others motives namely guilt at having let Nim be taken away from her. This leads her to do something quite dramatic and drastic.

One troubling aspect of the film for this reviewer is the discovery, after viewing the film, that a lot of the supposed footage of Nim had been recreated using actors. It is undoubtedly skilfully done but this is an uncomfortable development in documentary films. This is perhaps a discussion for another day but it does feel a little like people are being taken in by something that is not accurate. Overall James Marsh’s film is much smaller in scope than Man on Wire but none the worse for it. It is a moving and thought provoking documentary that stands on its own merits.

25 year old film fanatic who loves rock music, Xbox and cat videos on Youtube. I also tweet @lewisvstheworld

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