If movies about talking cars or warlike robots don’t interest you, Project Nim is the latest documentary (following Buck) to offer a satisfying, adult alternative. It tells a story that is both stranger and more thought-provoking than most Hollywood fare.
The Nim of the title is Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was given the pun-ny name (a play on Noam Chomsky) when he was separated from his mother and placed in the care of Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace in 1973. The mere thought of a mother and child being torn apart is wrenching enough, but that’s just the first in a series of—
— dramatic incidents in the life of this unfortunate animal. Terrace spent five years seeing if a primate could be taught to communicate with humans using sign language.
Director James Marsh, who won a well-deserved Oscar for Man on Wire, allows the humans who interacted with Nim over the years to tell their own stories, knowing full well that audiences will make their own judgments and need little prompting from him. Terrace comes off as aloof and pompous—a textbook case of someone who doesn’t see himself as others do—while the others who helped raise, educate, and rescue Nim over the years reveal their various follies, foibles, and good intentions.
As he did in Man on Wire, Marsh seamlessly integrates dramatized shots and scenes with authentic home-movie and news footage of Nim and his human companions. I’ve never been a fan of recreations in documentaries, but Marsh uses them better than anyone else in the field. I thought all the material was authentic until I read the closing credits, which gave me some pause. Upon reflection, I came to the decision that what matters most is that the story is true; this canny director uses the tools at his disposal to make it work in cinematic terms.
Animal lovers will be upset by passages in the movie, even though the story’s resolution isn’t entirely negative. It’s the humans who must be held accountable for putting a wild animal into an unfamiliar environment and then washing their hands of responsibility when he is no longer useful. Project Nim is ostensibly about a chimpanzee, but it has much more to say about our own species. That’s what makes it so compelling.