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Project Nim

4 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

James Marsh, director of ‘Man on Wire’, is the Cecil B DeMille of the UK documentary fraternity: his showmanship knows no bounds, to the point where the flamboyant style of his films often clouds the fundamental issues they raise.

His new doc offers a head-spinning array of dramatic inserts, busy infographics and a hip soundtrack by Tindersticks’ Dickon Hinchliffe – not things you’d generally associate with a sober, in-depth study of linguistics.

Still, almost despite itself, ‘Project Nim’ remains a fascinating chronicle of dashed intellectual enquiry, the hazards of anthropomorphism and the nostalgic beauty of analogue recording devices. Via home movie cine-footage and contemporary interviews, it takes a look at the sad life of Nim Chimpsky, a mischievous chimpanzee who, in the early ’70s, was secured by Herbert Terrace – a Columbia University researcher who specialised in animal cognition – to be the subject of a radical experiment looking into the possibilities of human-animal dialogue.

Nim is brought up in a liberal New York household: he’s (breast!) fed at the table, dressed in a romper suit and swiftly imbued with the basics of sign language. The young, idealistic researchers working with Nim fall head-over-heels in love with the cute little tyke, a love that is clearly reciprocated. Yet, as he grows older, wiser and stronger, the parent-child power relationship alters and Nim’s savage, unknowable interior begins to emerge.

The film espouses the same basic lessons as Werner Herzog’s ‘Grizzly Man’, in that it offers a warning to those who think animals share the same code of ethics as humans. But Marsh shows great empathy for his ‘hero’, and when Nim’s later life takes a number of tragic twists, they feel all the more upsetting given the scientists’ cavalier methodology. You’re left with the impression that, despite not being able to grasp basic human grammar, perhaps Nim was unwittingly conditioned into understanding the concept of love.

Release Details

  • Rated:12A
  • Release date:Friday 12 August 2011
  • Duration:100 mins

Cast and crew

  • Director:James Marsh
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