'Project Nim': Just Enough Monkeying Around

The issues may not be immediately relevant to the moment, but the human element of Project Nim, combined with its expert direction, make it a must-see documentary.

Project Nim

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Nim Chimpsky
Length: 93 minutes
Studio: Red Box Films, Passion Pictures, BBC Films
Year: 2011
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images
Release date: 2012-02-07

I want to get this out of the way right off the bat because the guilt is killing me – I have not seen Man on Wire, James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary. I know. I’m a horrible critic, art enthusiast, and human being. I have no excuse. It’s available on DVD, iTunes, and Netflix Instant. The best reasoning I can provide is I’m intimidated by its greatness. For a good chunk of time, it was thee movie everyone agreed was phenomenal. Then it won the Oscar. Then it didn’t go away. Four years later and I still haven’t taken the time to appreciate it.

If you’re looking for a comparison of Marsh’s masterpiece with his latest retrospective documentary, the best I can do is speculate. And if I do that, I would say Project Nim is a minor work of compelling storytelling -- comparatively speaking. Marsh combines present-day interviews with archived footage to tell the tale of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised by human scientists in New York during the '70s.

Giving away any more of the story would be criminal to the film. Project Nim works almost solely as a personal tale of one chimp’s life and the lives he affected. There are (voiced and unspoken) allusions to nature vs. nurture, what makes us human, and animal cruelty, but these all feel secondary to Nim’s journey. We watch him from infancy to adulthood and every step in between. He talks to us through his human observers. We come as close as possible to knowing Nim without, you know, actually knowing him.

Therein lies the true brilliance of Marsh’s work: because of our own, slowly built attachment to Nim, it’s easy for us as an audience to identify with each and every one of Nim’s human friends (and a few enemies). There’s the professor who founded the experiment at Columbia University in New York whose relationship with Nim may or may not be as genuine as he wants it depicted. There’s Nim’s first mother figure who didn’t care whether or not any scientific records were kept on his development. There’s the graduate student who may have been closer to Nim than anyone else, but has mixed feelings about the project.

There are many more individuals who are surprisingly open about their experiences with the chimp. Marsh captures and presents their stories with an impressive degree of neutrality – just when you think his picture might lean one way or the other, he introduces a new opinion that steers the last in a new direction (or just flat out contradicts it). His presentation of the information is bold, unbiased, and all encompassing. No side goes unheard in the same manner as the best journalistic endeavors. TV reporters take note – this is how it’s done.

That said, the issues present in Nim’s story aren’t as fleshed out as Nim himself. Some of their diminishment is explained by third act revelations from the conflicted scientists’ theories. The rest seems left out intentionally, a gamble made by Marsh I think works. Project Nim is powerful because of its duality; some will leave the film seriously discussing the subtly conferred issues while others will simply be left wondering how Nim Chimpsky felt about the experiment in which he unwillingly participated.

Others may not be similarly affected, and my own feelings aren’t as strong as other, more potent docs like Who Killed the Electric Car? and Hoop Dreams. Yet Project Nim is expertly crafted and undeniably endearing. The DVD’s special features follow a similar trajectory. Marsh provides feature commentary and a “Making Of” featurette, two bonus mainstays that are always appreciated.

The third and last extra, though, makes the section worth checking out. “Bob’s Journey” follows one of the film’s human subjects as he travels with the film to various festivals and screenings. He believes in the movie, but more importantly, he really loves chimps. In the ten minute mini-doc, Bob visits Nim’s son and spends time just playing with the young monkey. It’s a touching scene that works as a relevant epilogue to the feature film. It also parallels the film’s irreproachable intentions; love, common sense, and scientific pursuits can coexist. We just have to find the happy medium for all three.


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