out of Five
Running time: 93
James Marsh's hugely entertaining follow-up to Man on Wire is an impressively directed, superbly edited and utterly riveting tale with an endlessly fascinating collection of twists and turns and some intriguing points to make about both animal and human behaviour.
What's it all about?
Directed by James Marsh, Project Nim is based on the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess. The story begins in 1973 when newborn chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky (named after Noam Chompsky, a gag the film curiously chooses to ignore) is snatched from his captive birth mother by moustachioed Columbia professor Herb Terrace, who theorises that a chimp raised with a human family might be able to learn language.
Nim is placed with rich hippie grad student (and Herb's former lover) Stephanie Lafarge, who has a Brady Bunch-style family of seven kids and lives in a New York Brownstone apartment. However, when the scientific elements of the project seem to be getting lost, Nim is separated from his new family and placed with a succession of different carers over the next twenty-something years, including enthusiastic grad student Laura-Ann Petitto (another of Herb's conquests), cat-loving Joyce Butler and dope-smoking, Grateful Dead-worshipping Bob Ingersoll.
Marsh has assembled a wealth of terrific archive material that includes home movies, stills and news reports, all of which are mixed together with Errol Morris-style filmed present-day interviews and the occasional dramatic reconstruction in order to tell the story.
Gratifyingly, all the main players in Nim's story agreed to be interviewed for the film and their stories are remarkably candid, whether it's Stephanie matter-of-factly stating that she breast-fed Nim along with her other children (“Hey, it was the 70s!”, deadpans one of her grown-up kids), Herb expressing his rather naïve belief that his sexual relationships wouldn't affect the experiment or Bob admitting that he shared a joint with Nim.
The human subjects, then, are every bit as fascinating as Nim himself and Marsh is clearly just as interested in deeply flawed human behaviour as he is in Nim's language experiment (in fact, Nim learns an astonishing number of signs and is able to construct phrases such as “Cat Me Nim Hug”; the footage of him “hugging” Joyce's long-suffering cat is one of many highlights).
Similarly, Nim's story is full of jaw-dropping twists and is by turns laugh-out-loud funny, shocking, terrifying, thought-provoking and ultimately deeply moving.
This is a well-made, hugely entertaining documentary that tells a fascinating story. As Nim might say, “Go See Nim Story”. Highly recommended.