'Project Nim' Review

From the archives, a look at the first great documentary of 2011.

project nim

This review was written during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on January 21, 2011.

An adopted child grows up into a traumatic life; first he’s in and out of relationships, then he’s off to an inhumane prison for a crime not his fault, where he’s subjected to medical testing, and ultimately he finishes out his days as a maladjusted and angry ex-con. Sounds like the perfect Sundance drama, yet it’s true, and the story is told in documentary form. Oh, and it’s about a chimpanzee.

Man on Wire Oscar-winner James Marsh has done it again with Project Nim, another riveting tale of a minor ’70s celebrity, this time the precocious primate Nim Chimpsky, famous for being taught sign language (and definitely the inspiration for Virgil in the ’80s movie Project X) yet less known for being an abandoned research tool and tragic victim of bad science.

Nim is taken from his mother within days of his birth and sent to live with rich hippies, including a new maternal figure, Stephanie LaFarge, who treats him like a combination pet, human infant (she breastfeeds him) and borderline lover (in her onscreen interview, she implies to have only held back because he was like a “preteen”). Also in his life were careless researchers, notably Columbia professor Herbert Terrace, all of who partake in their own sexual intermingling (“it was the ’70s”).

Eventually, the project that fascinated the world with its promised contribution to linguistics and the nature/nurture debate, ends, and Nim goes from home to home, some more physically abusive than others, some more psychologically inappropriate and damaging. Along the way, there are some laughs to be had, but there is much more heartbreak. If Man on Wire is one of the most crowd-pleasing docs of all time, this may be one of the most constantly devastating.

That is, of course, odd given how many documentaries tackle tragic human rights issues and histories of death and destruction. It’s not surprising, however, to witness audiences tearing up more for animals than people. In some ways, it’s more appropriate here in a story when a chimp has been elevated to near-human status and his life story functions as a way of addressing basic human issues of family, sexuality and power struggles within these, that stem from our primitive animalistic nature.

LaFarge, the initial surrogate, tells us in one of the most poignant moments, that words are the enemy, that language keeps us from being truly close to one another. She experiences it with a poet husband and in the education of Nim. But in another interesting doc at Sundance this year, Tiffany Shlain‘s Connected, we find the theory that man’s development of language mainly just created a power shift in gender equality, because males are more text-minded and women are more image-minded. This fits with ‘Nim”s continual interest in the relationships among animals and males and parents and academic authorities.

Many of the themes and certainly the aesthetic of Nim remind me (and others) of the work of Errol Morris, particularly his latest, Tabloid, which also has some weird stuff involving pets and sexuality and morals. The crisply shot interview segments, with their stark gray backgrounds seems almost identical in my mind. Unlike that film, though, there fortunately seems to be little, if any, in the way of exploitation and mockery on the part of Marsh’s storytelling.

There are a few times when we do laugh at the real-life characters and their oftentimes shocking confessional recollections, but this is an ape movie like any other ape movie with regards to its humor, and the audience rousingly took to photos and archival film material of Nim wearing suits, smoking pot and humping cats just as they would had they been watching any number of fictional comedies about chimps in clothes and acting like humans.

Not that I’m saying Project Nim is the same as Ed or Buddy or any other awful “monkey” movies. Very far from it, in fact, thanks to Marsh’s filmmaking style and storytelling skill, based on his ability to find lively and open characters who are themselves good at verbally narrating the plot, as well as a mixed dependency on previously recorded footage (easier with minor celebs who’ve been documented before) and a willingness to utilize simple reenactment materials to link and flesh out that other footage.

I have no problem admitting, mere weeks into the year, that Project Nim will be among my top three documentaries of 2011, if not my very favorite. And if I stand corrected in twelve months, I will graciously admit a glorious wrong, because if there are any non-fiction films as good if not better ahead, I’m going to be a very happy documentary fan.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.