¨I thought wouldn’t it be exciting to communicate with a chimp and find out what it was thinking.¨
Director James Marsh won an Oscar for his brilliant documentary, Man on Wire, which told the story of French tightrope walker Phillippe Petit who performed his routine across the Twin Towers in New York City. That film was very suspenseful and really hooked my attention. Project Nim, is also directed by Marsh, but it doesn’t have the same suspense that that film had. Man on Wire kept me interested in how Petit was able to achieve his goal, he was a very charismatic figure, and on the other hand Project Nim was kind of slow paced and didn’t have any interesting characters rather than the Chimp himself. Nim (the name of the chimp) is fun to watch on screen, but it didn`t work as a full length documentary for me. The story does raise several questions about how inhumane we can be at times and how our ¨scientific projects¨ have interfered in many animals lives. Questions which I already was familiar with, so this movie really didn’t surprise me one bit, like say The Cove did with the slaughtering of the dolphins in Japan. That was a much more effective and eye-opening documentary. Project Nim is a well made documentary, but it really falls short compared to last year`s great ones such as Inside Job, Restrepo, and Exit Through the Gift Shop. I haven’t been able to watch many documentaries this year, but I heard this was on many critics’ favorite lists so I went ahead and checked it out, but felt a bit disappointed with it. The bar has already been raised high for these movies (and Marsh himself is responsible for this after his excellent Man on Wire) so I really can`t recommend this one as highly as I would`ve like too.
Hebert Terrace was a professor at Columbia University during the 70`s when he came up with the idea of trying to teach a chimpanzee how to communicate like a human being. Considering human and chimp DNA is very similar he believed that it could be possible for a chimp to communicate what he was thinking if he was raised in a normal human environment. So Terrace chose a newborn chimp, separated it from his mother, named it Nim, and gave him to a human family which would be in charge of nurturing and taking care of it as if it were a normal human being. Terrace chose Stephanie Lafarge and her family to raise the animal. It was the seventies, the hippy movement, and her family was pretty much very liberal. They had no idea of how to raise the chimp and they practically let it run around everywhere. The monkey spend the first years with that family, until Terrace decided to move him to a bigger home with more experienced professors who could teach Nim how to communicate better. Nim learned several sign languages and was taught at first by Laura-Ann Petitto, but as the chimp grew up he became more dangerous. He never lost his animals instincts although he did make some progress in communication. After five years Terrace decided to end the project as he felt the research wasn’t going anywhere, and Nim was sent back to a chimp refugee where he spent most of the time locked up in cages although he felt most attached to Bob Ingersoll who continued the communication process with the animal and spent time playing with it in the wild. The documentary continues to track Nim`s life until his death.
The scientific project really resulted in being inhumane for the chimp because despite making some progress he never really adapted well when he was taken back with the rest of the chimps. He had been raised as a human for so long that after the project ended, Nim continued suffering the exploitations he went through. There were many people who helped Nim and really cared for him, but at the same time the entire experiment resulted in being a negative thing for the chimp. Project Nim never tries to be preachy or tell us what to do, it simply points out the facts. Marsh interviews everyone that was a part of Nim`s life and shows a lot of footage that was used during the investigation. The documentary is really interesting on paper, but I really felt it dragged for some while and wasn’t as entertaining as other recent documentaries. Marsh is a great director and he has great ideas, but I don’t think this film really deserves an Oscar nomination. It`s still a good film and if you`re interested in animal behavior you might enjoy this a little more than I did. I`m more into sports and preferred the Uruguayan documentary Manyas much more, which dealt with the soccer fanatics and the way they felt for their team.