Project Nim

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Project Nim

It's Simian Cautionary Tale Week in Gotham. After taking in Film Forum's rerelease of [node:1653799 link=Planet of the Apes;], you might make room for James Marsh's uneven yet revealing documentary about Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee at the center of a controversial 1970s research project. Marsh (Man on Wire) opens his glossy nonfiction by garishly recreating the fateful moment when Nim is ripped from his mother's arms and given to behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace. It's a maudlin, manipulative scene (slo-mo tranquilizer dart, oh no!), and there are similarly flashy indulgences throughout. When an interviewee recalls a rampaging Nim throwing a chair through a window, Marsh cuts to a slickly off-kilter shot of...a chair being thrown through a window.

The good news is that the film's stylistic excesses don't negate the many fascinating aspects of Nim's story. Terrace and his team hoped to prove that a chimpanzee raised by humans could learn to communicate via sign language. Marsh makes liberal use of the project's 16mm and video records to show how Nim quickly progressed from simple words to basic commands, though he also reveals, quite critically, how the scientists were hardly dispassionate in their research. (A particularly eyebrow-raising moment: One of the female participants casually admits to breast-feeding the baby chimp for several months.) After the fact-finding ended, Nim was shuttled to a Mengele-like research facility and, finally, to an abused animals' haven. These later scenes raise troublingly acute questions about the human inclination to anthropomorphize the animal kingdom---which only complicates (and hardly excuses) Marsh's own tendency to do just that. Project Nim's ersatz happy ending is the biggest blunder; it may have you longing for an ape revolution, just to counter the cloying sentimentality.

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By: Keith Uhlich


Release details

Rated: PG-13
Release date: Friday July 8 2011
Duration: 99 mins

Cast and crew

Director: James Marsh
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