Review: Project Nim (2011)

After the extraordinary success of Man on Wire, Academy Award winning director James Marsh returns to documentary filmmaking with Project Nim: an insightful account of a chimpanzee’s experimental life in the 1970′s.

In more depth, Project Nim documents the life of Nim Chimpsky: a chimpanzee taken from his mother shortly after birth by one Herb Terrace. Nim was raised as human by a family in New York City, as a part of a Columbia University research project into a chimp’s potential for sign language and logical human interaction.

Each key player in Nim’s life – from his “mother” figure Stephanie LaFarge in New York to those who become involved in his latter days at the Cleveland Armory – discusses their influence and relationship with the chimpanzee, collectively painting a vivid picture of Nim’s entire life.

Using a fascinating and extremely immersive mix of archive footage, substantial recreations and the previously mentioned secluded interviews with some of the people most influential in Nim’s life, Marsh sets out Nim’s tale in an altogether sincere, inspired and surprisingly unbiased way. By doing so he manages to coax out a mixture of laughs and heartache from such an emotionally devastating tale, without getting needlessly sentimental or preachy.

Ingeniously implemented, the interviews are the most effective aspect of the film, providing a well-intentioned link to Marsh’s superb Man On Wire. Not only do they tie one section of Nim’s life into the next, but they allow viewers the time to emote with and truly understand the people who were closest to him. Some, such as Bob Ingersoll, were responsible for some of his glorious highs, though others like Herb caused devastating lows. Marsh’s exploration helps the audience know not just what happened, but also to understand why.

Project Nim is wholly absorbing, cementing Marsh as a documentary filmmaker in a league of his own. He manages to educate his viewers, while supplying them with an engaging, heartwarming and devastatingly authentic tale of love, and the ongoing debate between how nature and nurture effects both the animals and humans involved.

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