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Simon Read [Film Festival 06.23.11] movie review documentary

Year: 2011
Directors: James Marsh
Writers: N/A
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: projectcyclops
Rating: 8 out of 10

The new documentary from James Marsh, the director of Oscar winning "Man On Wire" is a look at the life of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was raised in as similar as possible a way as a human child and taught sign language by a doctor called Herbert Terrace in the late 1970s, and who was working with the University of Columbia to prove that apes could communicate with humans, if given the right training. He moved Nim (named for Noam Chomsky - who theorises that language is inherent only in humans) into a brownstone in New York, where he lived during his infancy with a family called the LaFarges.

Through many of the same techniques employed in Man On Wire - stylish 'flashback' recreations, sit down interviews, still photos and home video footage - we learn of Nim's story and the many ups and downs he went through in life as he grew into a very unique creature.

The head of the LaFarge family and Nim's adoptive mother came in the form of Stephanie, who ran her household like the self-confessed rich hippie that she was. Nim was allowed plenty of freedom and even found time for the odd puff of grass in between meals of yogurt and granola. While he was openly hostile towards her husband Wer, their daughter Jenny fondly remembers their time looking after the chimp, although muses that it could really only have happened in the 70's. It's extremely sweet seeing little Nim basically messing around and having such a fun childhood, and quite incredible watching as he learns to "sign" and communicate in basic terms with his carers, the conversations are subtitled neatly and are just as amusing as they are amazing.

When Terrace visited and realised that Nim's progress wasn't being documented he hired a teacher called Laura, who brought some structure into his education and the signing went from domestic chit-chat to something more formal and functional. As Nim grew older Stephanie and her family had to accept that they were going to lose him. Soon he's moved into an actual mansion with aches of ground to use, but even then he simply grew too big and started to express his animal instincts, and as we see the array of scars that those who knew him were given, we realise that even although he was taught to communicate, he's still an animal inside, and quite likely to tear your face off if he feels like it.

What happens next is heartbreaking, as nobody really knows what to do with the poor creature, although there is a happy ending in there somewhere. When we meet one handler who actually can deal with Nim as an adult it is such a relief that it's tear inducing. Bob Ingersall is a raggedy old hippie, Grateful Dead fan and seemingly the perfect chimp companion, as he and Nim lived for some time on an outdoor estate and found a way to communicate and live without incident. Bob seems to have the best understanding on how Nim's mind works, and they formed a powerful rapport that feels unique in animal-human relations. His musings on the subject are insightful, and seeing footage of him interacting with the grown Nim is absolutely fascinating.

Most of the interviewees now lament the entire experiment, one subject even calling shame on everyone involved. Certainly Herbert Terrace come out pretty badly as he neglected the adult Nim after he considered the test finished, and didn't consider the effect that laboratory captivity would have on a chimp raised wearing sweaters, playing with cats and smoking pot. While the LaFarges seem like simple, nice people, Nim's teacher Laura is comes off as a rather opportunistic woman. But then there's Bob, who really deserves some kind of medal.

Is the film as good as Man On Wire? Not a fair question but if forced I'd say not quite as good. Man On Wire has a wild energy to it that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat the entire time, and focusing on Petit and his mad scheme is a different game than recording all the accounts and episodes in the life of a signing ape. That said, Project Nim is an emotional roller-coaster, and if you're the kind of person who tends to project emotions onto animals that perhaps aren't really there (as lots of us humans do) then you'll need a few tissues to get you through.

Overall though Project Nim is a terrific documentary and I look forward to seeing more of Marsh's work in the future. His style is evident in this film as in Wire, and my only gripe is that he hasn't changed it. The techniques employed in crafting the film are so similar it was almost by-the-numbers in direction, but hey, if it ain't broke.

One last thing: watching a chimp get stoned is very funny, and one of Nim's favourite signs was: "Stone. Smoke. Now." Reminded me of some of my friends at college, man.

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Anonymous (9 years ago) Reply

Sounds very interesting. I'll put this on my list of got to see.


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