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Project Nim: Fascinating Documentary about a Chimp that was Raised as a Human
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.
They would try anything as if they had no fear of failure. They weren’t afraid of screwing up because the process and the act of creation were the important parts; if the product ended up sucking it was no big deal because they’d already be at work on the next piece. At least that’s the vibe that the documentary gives off. It also helps that the modern day, grown-up No Wavers seem every bit as cool as they did back then.
He could have been the next Bob Dylan; in South Africa, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Australia, he was even bigger than Elvis. His music was loved by the critics but ignored by audiences, and after two albums – titled Cold Fact and Coming From Reality – fell on deaf ears in the US, and his efforts proved commercially fruitless, the Detroit street-poet instantaneously fell from the face of the earth, vanishing into complete obscurity.
So, whatever happened to the talented and disturbingly underrated Detroit-born 70's soul-folk musician, Sixto Diaz Rodriguez? That's a question first-time Swedish filmmaker, Malik Bendjelloul, seeks answers to in one of the most compelling and touching music documentaries of the past decade.
Ingeniously titled, Searching for Sugar Man, the story takes us to South Africa where we learn that while Rodriguez never managed to find the artistic and marketable success in the US, his music – thanks to the bootlegging of his first album, Cold Fact – ended up playing a significant role in the apartheid-era. Rodriguez became the voice of the people despite governmental efforts to censor his record's 'offending' tracks; and for many years, he never even knew it.
With only a few pictures of Rodriguez available as proof that he really does exist, his devoted fans never really knew much about their beloved idol. Bizarre rumours surfaced alleging that he had committed suicide onstage during one of his failed performances, either by shooting himself or by setting himself on fire.
Rodriguez's legacy never died, even after the struggling apartheid years were long over. Often referred to as the 'prophet of the people', devoted fans, Segerman and Strydom, set out to undertake research, only to discover that their search only marked the beginning of something greater than initially imagined.
Well paced and cinematically striking, the film doesn’t fall back on simple on-camera interviews and narration, but rather, Bendjelloul adds a sense of intrigue and beauty using an evidently thought-out structure to his storytelling. Dazzling shots of Cape Town's skyline and striking animatics of Rodriguez walking the streets of his hometown play a big part in the story development; as a result there isn't one dull moment.
Rodriguez's songs play throughout the entire film and there is no denying the fact that this man – who was constantly compared to the likes of Dylan and Donovan – was unjustly disregarded. His soulful tracks and profound lyrics score the film and even though there is a sense of melancholy, the story still manages to find room for the positive, ultimately proving that it's never too late to fulfil your dreams.
Searching for Sugar Man is a truly fine documentary and a significant work of art. Although we would have liked to see a little bit more of the live-concert footage, and perhaps gotten to know a little bit more about what's hiding beneath the dark mysterious exterior, Searching for Sugar Man is still highly insightful and thoroughly entertaining.