Project Nim (2011)

Starring Nim, Herbert Terrace, Stephanie Lafarge, Jenny Lee, Laura-Ann Petitto, Joyce Butler, Bill Tynan, Renee Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, James Mahoney

Directed by James Marsh

Expectations: Moderate. The premise sounds interesting.

Is it nature or nurture? A long-standing question of existence, are we human simply because we are raised human, or could other species live in similar ways given the tools to do so. In 1973, one scientist set out to find the answer to this question by taking a newborn chimpanzee from his natural mother and placing him in a human home. The surrogate family then hoped to raise the chimp as another member of the family, attempting to teach the chimp sign language to see if he possessed the capacity for language that human’s have and if the chimp’s wild nature was only a product of his chimp upbringing.

For those that have seen the documentaries about Koko the gorilla (such as 1978’s Koko: A Talking Gorilla), who was also taught sign language, some of Nim’s story arch will be very familiar. But where Koko has continued living her scientific and sheltered life with her teacher Penny, Nim’s journey takes a decidedly different and much more upsetting path. Consequently the film is much more than it seems to be on the surface, and it examines multiple aspects and live paths of captive animals.

The documentary is skillfully made and the filmmakers do their best to work without intruding on their subject. They inject some dramatic reenactments to help punctuate some of the interview footage, but this works exactly as intended instead of harming the narrative truth, bringing the interviewees’ words to life in a much more visceral way than is normally possible in a documentary. I have a general distaste for dramatic reenactments, and I’ll admit that they were initially off-putting, but I soon recognized the good they did for the film at large and quieted the mental uprising that was going on. The filmmakers also cleverly use their camera during the interviews to signal the coming and going of the humans in Nim’s life, skillfully transitioning through the stages of his journey.

In the end, the film never actively brings everything together into some grand animal rights statement, and this is one of my favorite aspects of the film. Subtlety in film is something I see far too little of, and thus respect greatly. Project Nim is incredibly subtle in its points, simply allowing the words of the interviewees & the images of Nim’s life as he travels from place to place to exist on their own, without preaching and being in-your-face about anything. The result is a slick film that never hammers its agenda home (if indeed it does have an agenda), but after watching I doubt that anyone could feel anything but sorrow for captive animals. They are meant to be wild and anything but is inhumane. The beauty of the film though is that it doesn’t tell you how you should feel, it allows you to see the evidence and decide for yourself. This subtle, opinion-less type of documentary filmmaking is everything the genre should be and Project Nim and its director James Marsh should be applauded for constructing such a well put together piece of non-fiction filmmaking. I’m sure I would have enjoyed the film more had I not seen the Koko documentaries prior, but regardless, Project Nim is a great film and one that makes a great case for animal rights without actively making a case at all.

And not to be juvenile or belittle the story of Nim any, but I couldn’t help but think about the foundational story of Planet of the Apes while I was watching the film. Watching the footage here with chimps going through such harsh life cycles in the interest of “science”, it’s clear how a speculative mind could create such a story of simian revolution against their human captors.