Film Review: Fascinating ‘Project Nim’ Chronicles Tragic Failure

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CHICAGO – Human beings are an egotistical, power-hungry species. There’s simply no way around it. And if you think any differently, watch James Marsh’s “Project Nim,” a documentary about the rampant egotism of man’s manipulation of another species. Even the urge to learn and teach that’s expressed at the beginning of “Project Nim” is just a disguise for control. What the people involved with Project Nim did to another creature is worse than typical animal testing because it was not just physically cruel but psychologically as well. Chimps are like us but they are NOT us. It seems an obvious lesson and one that Marsh clearly agrees with based on the tone of his accomplished film but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded by “Project Nim.”

Does anyone else think it’s odd that talking primates are about to dominate the marketplace in family fare (“Zookeeper”), sci-fi (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), and the most highly-anticipated documentary of the year? We’re clearly fascinated by these creatures so much like us and yet also unique in very important ways. But what can we learn from “Project Nim”? Marsh focuses intently on the title character to a bit of a fault, never really giving the piece context in the greater scope of animal experimentation or our fascination with our primate friends. Consequently, he has delivered a focused, very good documentary instead of the great one that could have been crafted from this bizarre true tale with a bit more scope.

StarRead Brian Tallerico’s full review of “Project Nim” in our reviews section.

Being as close to us on the evolutionary ladder as they clearly are, it’s tempting to think that chimps are just like humans without the voice boxes or the nurturing. There’s more to our differences than that. Started in the ‘70s, Project Nim set out to prove that chimps would be able to communicate if given the same developmental process and nurturing as human children. A chimp named Nim was taken from his motkher and given to a family of self-admitted hippies. They took him in without question, talked to him, taught him sign language, breast-fed him, and treated him like another member of the family, even going as far as to give him alcohol and drugs to experience the same sensations as a human.

But Nim wasn’t a human. All the sign language and wacky weed in the world wasn’t going to change that. And the differences between his species and ours continued to become more pronounced as he aged. The study was deeply flawed at its core in its misunderstanding that chimps could be “just like us” but it was even more doomed to fail by virtue of the fact that no one had anything resembling a plan. The family with which Nim was placed didn’t keep records and became so attached to Nim that they saw his presence in a more spiritual sense, going as far as to say “Words became the enemy.” A project about teaching a chimp sign language had already fallen apart.

StarContinue reading for Brian Tallerico’s full “Project Nim” review.

”Project Nim” was directed by James Marsh. It opens in Chicago on July 8th, 2011.

Project Nim
Project Nim
Photo credit: Oscilloscope

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