Tag Archives: documentary

Project Nim

23 Feb

Director:James Marsh

Stars:Bob Angelini, Nim Chimpsky and Bern Cohen

Motion Picture Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 93 minutes




James Marsh, and his team, has delivered another excellent documentary. After the thrilling 2008 Man on Wire comes this fascinating account of the life of chimpanzee Nim Chimpsky. In a story that no doubt inspired last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, this documentary charts the life of Nim from birth (1973) to death (2000) and his role in a nature versus nurture experiment to teach a chimpanzee sign language.

Nim’s story and this documentary starts with the experiment as run by Herbert Terrace at Columbia University. Nim is taken at birth from a compound in Oklahoma, transported to New York, and handed over to a family picked by Terrace. The aim is to try to teach Nim sign language and to try to assimilate the chimpanzee into a human family. It is the early 1970’s and such an authority defying experiment seems fitting. However, once Nim gets big and strong at 5 years old the experiment is curtailed. At that point Nim has shown the odd flash of animalistic and dangerous behaviour. What follows is the even more extraordinary and sad story of Nim as he is passed between wildlife parks, research labs and animal sanctuaries.

Nim’s story is fascinating and I was spellbound by it. What it tells us about animal capabilities and how it answers the nature versus nurture argument is not clear. What is clear is the impact that Nim has on the humans that he interacts with. The teachers, handlers and support staff are as much in the spotlight as Nim and each one reveal a range of human traits as Nim and they get older through the documentary. At times the human and animal line is perfectly blurred. This is a splendid piece of documentary film-making.

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