2011 really was the year of the documentary, with the release of superb documentaries such as Senna (2010), Tabloid (2010) and Dreams of a Life (2011). So I was intrigued to see another documentary released this year, Project Nim, which tells the story of a chimpanzee called Nim. In the 1970s, under the direction of Professor Herb Terrace, Nim was separated from his mother at a very young age and placed with a bohemian family in New York. The reason behind this cruel act? Professor Herb wanted to raise a chimp as if it were a human child and try and enable it to learn to communicate with humans using sign language. But the scientific experiment depended on funding and of course a controlled environment and so when Herb realised the family were being a little too lenient with Nim, he moved him to another environment. And so begins the often harrowing story of Nim and how he was moved from place to place at the convenience of the research until finally abandoned at the primate centre where he was born, once the experiment came to an end and the people became too afraid of the unpredictable grown up chimpanzee. But this isn’t the end of Nim’s story and this intelligent creature’s life goes from bad to worse as human beings interfere even more and Nim is moved to an animal testing centre called LEMSIP.
It isn’t all bad for Nim though as we see how he develops fascinating relationships with various humans he encounters along the way and he eventually ends up at an animal sanctuary, although the owners don’t have a clue about how to look after chimpanzees. However, this is rectified and eventually we see a sort of happy ending for our protagonist. Although calling Nim the protagonist may not be completely accurate as this documentary is very much about the humans surrounding Nim. Interviews in traditional talking head fashion are the predominant form of storytelling and we hear from the professor, various people who looked after Nim and taught him along the way and also the researcher who worked at LEMSIP. We hear everyone’s thoughts and feelings on the experiment and the film becomes particularly poignant when one woman who looked after and helped raise Nim describes that they let him down.
The filmmakers were incredibly lucky to get consent and participation from all the main players in the experiment and they really use them to tell the story. This first-hand viewpoint allows us to hear the full account and is made all the more shocking by hearing the way some talk about it in such a matter of fact way. Dramatizations fill in the gaps, along with archival footage of Nim learning to communicate with the humans. The footage is mesmerising and devastating, one moment where we see Nim meeting another chimp for the first time sees him confused and scared and gripping to the human for comfort. The use of text on the screen to illustrate points does become overused and slightly patronising but generally the film flows and felt consistent.
However, the documentary felt like it didn’t quite know what it was trying to say, and whereas this may come across as a neutral standpoint to some, to me it felt a little unsure of what to do with such a massive and controversial subject matter. It tells the story of Nim on a basic level but skims over the crucial and often disturbing issues at the centre, which I was actually grateful for. But it still left me wondering quite what the purpose of the film was supposed to be. From what I can gather it is an impartial look at a very complex story that is viewed on one level. The story is interesting and it is wonderful to see such intelligent and fascinating creatures but unfortunately this is greatly overshadowed by the selfish behaviour of the human beings. The actions of a lot of the humans are obviously being highlighted by the filmmakers but in a very passive manner. It is left up to the viewer to make sense of the information put forward and come to their own conclusions.
That said I was captivated by the documentary throughout and it is an important story to tell. It is also a difficult story to tell and the filmmakers succeed in telling it in an engaging way, it just left me feeling a little confused. It certainly comments on the power and control humans need to have at the expense of the quality of life of animals. It depicts the human’s desire to be the alpha male and also how a wild animal will always be a wild animal. There are plenty of lessons to be learnt from this film.
The subject matter results in the film not being enjoyable as such but there are still plenty of enjoyable moments and the social experiment is thoroughly interesting and highlights the extremely close link between chimps and humans. It may be a positive aspect to think that humans have evolved since the 1970s in terms of treatment of animals and animal testing but unfortunately that is not necessarily true and perhaps this film will allow people to realise that. Project Nim deserves credit for not using shock tactics to make points, instead it goes the complete opposite way and perhaps skims over things but this is a film about Nim and it tells his story to the world which is what he deserves. It is up to us to take as much or as little from it as we want.
Whilst not the highest calibre documentary I have seen in the last year, Project Nim is certainly a thought-provoking film that will no doubt leave you with more opinions about the human race than the chimp at the centre of its story.
The extras are a satisfying selection with an audio commentary from the director, featurettes and a photo gallery as well as an interesting ‘making of’ which reveals the director’s focus on creating believable dramatizations that correlated with the genuine footage, perhaps revealing that the director’s attention was focused much more on the style of the film rather than the purpose behind it.
Project Nim is yours to own on DVD on 9th January 2012.
Director: James Marsh
Stars: Bob Angelini, Nim Chimpsky, Bern Cohen, Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge
Runtime: 93 mins
Country: UK, USA