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Project Nim

Project Nim: Fascinating Documentary about a Chimp that was Raised as a Human

  • Bern CohenBob Angelini...
  • Documentary
  • Out now
  • James Marsh
reviewed by
Yasmin Shehab
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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.

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360 Tip

Director James Marsh won an Oscar for his previous documentary Man On Wire.

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