Project Nim tells the story of a science experiment started in the 70s to discover whether language was nature or nurture. Enter Nim; a baby chimp taken from his mother and raised in a human household as a human child for exactly this purpose.

Surrounded by a loving family and various scientists who start teaching him sign language, Nim begins to communicate with them, signing the words for play and hug among others. The story isn’t all rainbows and roses though. No matter how cute he may be and no matter how much he may bond with his handlers, the fact remains that he is, first and foremost, a science project and, as a result, is treated like one. Disappointed by the overly hippie and free natured house, the scientists in charge of the experiment uproot him to a house owned by the university. And while this transition was more or less fine by Nim, his subsequent moves weren’t so agreeable.

By the age of five, Nim had become a lot stronger than any of the humans he was surrounded by, and highly prone to biting. After injuring a number of his handlers, the project’s head decided that the results he was getting from the experiment weren’t sufficiently satisfying, decided to call the experiment off and had Nim shipped off to the place where he was born; a prison-like building filled with chimps in cages. A place which incidentally supplied chimps to pharmaceutical companies for animal testing.

This is where the animal rights issues kick in. Nim, who had never seen another chimp in his life, now had to be rehabilitated and learn how to be a chimp. While the question of whether interspecies communication is possible is never conclusively answered in the documentary, one thing is made clear; that chimps are highly complex creatures capable of a wide range of emotions. Nim had the capacity to love his handlers when they lived with him, feel betrayed by them when they abandoned him and forgive them when they came back.

The documentary, which is a mix of archival footage, old photographs and plenty of interviews, is absolutely riveting. It’s also completely heartbreaking and like the best tragedies, it starts off cute and funny then peels back the layers until you’re crying over how cruel and heartless man and modern science can be. Apart from being a completely fascinating subject, Nim was the perfect basis for the documentary due to the sheer wealth of material documenting his life. It seems like not a second went by that wasn’t captured on camera. The interviews, in addition to telling the story, allow the people involved to reflect on the experiment with the benefit of hindsight. We meet people who abandoned Nim when he was no longer useful to them, people who left him after realizing the threat posed by being around him and those who genuinely bonded with him.

If anybody thought the talking chimp in Rise of the Planet of the Apes was freaky, Project Nim cranks the weirdness up a couple of thousand notches. This reviewer did end up wishing though that Nim’s story could have ended in a way similar to that of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with Nim breaking free of his cage and rising against the system that ruined his life.