A documentary about a chimp with a puntastic name, Project Nim (2011, dir. James Marsh) chronicles the life and academic study of one Nim Chimpsky. Nim the chimpanzee was taken from his mother at birth and transplanted into the family of well-to-do academics in order to be raised in the manner of a human child. Nim was a part of a research project, named Project Nim, which aimed to ascertain whether a chimp raised in a human environment could learn to effectively communicate with humans using sign language. Project Nim tells the story of this amazing ape, from his birth to his last days.
There aren’t enough films about chimps nowadays. Especially interesting chimps like this one. Nim’s story is quite the fascinating one, both in terms of his general life narrative and the theory behind his involvement in the study. Nim is a pretty charming creature and we get to see a lot of footage of him that was taken throughout his life. Interestingly, this film isn’t all about Nim – it’s also about the people involved with him, from his initial ‘mother’, to his teachers and friends. The film is constructed with footage of Nim intercut with talking head interviews with the key players in his life. Even though some parts of the film can devolve into interpersonal drama between scientists, understanding the people who surrounded Nim is key to understanding Nim himself. My favourite of Nim’s friends was an ageing hippy who smoked marijuana with him enough for him to learn a sign for it – ‘stone smoke’. Watching Nim building relationships, and at times causing relationships to end, is quite emotional to see.
I might be showing my nerdy side here but Project Nim is disappointingly vague on the science side of things. Having studied linguistics and language acquisition before, I already knew a little bit about this famous chimp before watching the film. I know for sure that more (surprisingly quite interesting) detail could have been provided about the theory behind the study, in order to properly illuminate the rationale behind why the scientists/psychologists/teachers were raising Nim as a human child and attempting to teach him to communicate via sign language. We do get a very brief explanation about the science behind the study, but it was just not detailed enough for my tastes, and for other audiences this could result in a general lack of understanding of the significance of this study within the wider context of the field of linguistics.
However, despite my thirst for further scientific detail, I really enjoyed Project Nim. I especially enjoyed the questions it raised about the ethics of working with animals in this manner, crossing over the boundary towards exploitation and cruelty, and the question of whether a wild animal can ever really be tamed, even if it’s conditioned from birth to be human-like. Project Nim raises more questions about these issues than it can answer, but the rest of the film is sufficiently emotive for the viewer to build its own bond and connection with this clever chimpanzee. A very interesting documentary indeed.
Watch the trailer here.
Watch this film at Amazon!