By Lee Cahill
Project Nim is the most recent documentary from James Marsh, director of the wildly popular Man On Wire. Nim premiered at Sundance in 2011, had a nationwide theatrical release, and seemed to be a shoe-in for the Academy Awards. It’s a big movie, and a good one at that – so when I first saw it at DOC NYC in November, I figured it’d be a surefire mainstream success. But a few months down the line, no media blitz, no Oscar nod – what happened? I guess America just isn’t as enthralled with interspecies communication as I (the vegetarian, pet-adoption volunteer). Let me assure you, though, that you don’t need to be an animal rights activist to be affected by Nim…though you might end up one by the end.
Project Nim explores the incredible journey of Nim Chimpsky (a play on the name of linguist Noam Chomsky), a loveable chimpanzee who was the subject of a sign language study conducted in the 70’s by Professor Herbert Terrace at Columbia University. For the first two years of Nim’s life, he was raised as if he were human by a large, loving, hippy family in Manhattan. Terrace then tore Nim away from his adoptive family to begin a more strict sign language curriculum. During the course of the study, Nim’s signing capabilities flourished rapidly. Yet Nim didn’t meet Terrace’s expectations, only able learn words and not syntax. Though others involved with the project would disagree, Terrace deemed the study a failure. Despite his perception, the study is no doubt a spectacular achievement, but it only lasted a few years of Nim’s life. Afterwards, he was shuffled around quite a bit, and being raised as a human turned out to be just one of many outrageous circumstances in his life.
What makes this documentary so captivating is not just the story, but the storytelling. The film gathers perspectives on Nim’s life through interviews with all the key people involved, including the heavily criticized Terrace (who continues to do chimp research today). Meeting these characters face to face gives us a real sense of the hippy lifestyle of the time that allowed for the project to take place. Additionally, when a person enters Nim’s life in the film, we greet him or her as Nim would have, with the person signing his or her name. When a person leaves Nim’s life, the camera slowly tracks sideways, pushing the subject out of frame, almost like turning a page of a book, signifying the end of that chapter in Nim’s life.
Project Nim is an expertly told narrative of one extraordinary chimp’s life – a film that’s touching, enlightening, and a meditation on just what it means to be human…or not.
Buy or rent Project Nim right now on Amazon! Watch the trailer below.