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Project Nim Review

James Marsh has a veritable documentary goldmine, and it’s to his absolute credit that he treads softly in Project Nim. Marsh’s follow-up to the justly celebrated 2008’s Man On Wire, Nim is an engaging and moving tale of human folly and presumed superiority, as well as the kindness some of us are capable of. The film follows Project Nim, an audacious experiment positing that if a chimpanzee was raised in human company essentially from birth and taught American Sign Language, the beast might become considerably communicative in human company. The project would amass an astounding amount of insightful archival footage that Marsh relies on when one of his terrific scene recreations isn’t necessary.

Presiding over the “study” is one Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University who hires Stephanie LaFarge to serve as a surrogate mother to the young chimp, named Nim. A serious man with a penchant for carefully choosing his words, Terrace comes off as the villain of the piece, though Marsh’s manipulations are minimal. Terrace incriminates himself well, harboring a total detachment from the experiment (well, after 30 years, maybe that point is moot), and at one point brushing aside the impact of relationship he led on with several of the research assistants (Nim would be passed down from one mother figure to another).

Perhaps the most fascinating part of the film involves a focus on LaFarge, Nim’s first “mother” and possibly the most liberal of the people that would come in contact with the chimp, excepting Bob Ingersoll, whose efforts allow Nim some respite late in life. As Jenny, Nim’s temporary sister states with a laugh, “It was the 70s”. LaFarge’s ideas on how to raise a monkey involved breastfeeding, alcohol, and weed, and to hear her speak about these escapades bluntly is immensely entertaining.

Nim would have two other mothers, Laura-Ann Petitto and Joyce Bulter, who saw the chimp into adulthood. This section, set on an expansive villa devoted to the experiment, is where Marsh begins to shift the film into more dramatic gear. Gone are the carefree days of watching a young chimp acclimate himself to an unfamiliar world. Now, Nim is temperamental and dangerous, outfitted with inhuman strength and animal impulses that our researchers hope to short-circuit and circumvent.

In a director’s statement, James Marsh mentions “misleading human projection” as a major folly that he encountered while making this documentary. Those three words are at the heart of Project Nim, the film itself a consistent account of an animal sometimes anthropomorphized, other times understood to be a wild thing. Nim can’t speak for himself, as his limited (but very impressive) knowledge of ASL dealt with immediate concerns – “hug”, “play”, “give”, “eat”. Watching a variety of people lay out their perceptions of this animal, Marsh builds a complex portrait – but still one held together by the projections of others. Nim, who passed away in March 2000 of a heart attack, remains every bit as mysterious, especially given the heart-tugging final third of the film.

When Terrace declares the project a failure and Nim is shipped up to a facility in Oklahoma, he is thrust into a world where he must adapt to his own kind. Seeing him struggle is heartbreaking but when the facility loses funding and he is sold off into medical research in upstate New York, Marsh lets us follow down in the abyss. Nim’s fate ends on a bittersweet note that I won’t spoil here, the chimp parsing out his final years in a place that is not unfit for him, but still isn’t home. Maybe Nim never had a home – maybe he shouldn’t have been torn away from his real mother, maybe this experiment was bunk – Marsh’s documentary doesn’t make polarizing statements, just communicates that we, the viewer, are richer for it, because we can make our own conclusion. Let’s see last year's other monkey movie top this.

Video and audio is without incident, making for a solid home presentation, especially considering how much cleaned-up archival footage is utilized.

DVD Bonus Features

An insightful commentary with Marsh is supplemented by "Bob's Journey," a 10-minute update on the life of the instrumental and innately cheerful Ingersoll and a 30-minute making of that thankfully addresses the question of how the crew manages the terrific recreations that dot the film. Although included is the theatrical trailer.

"Project Nim" is on sale February 7, 2012 and is rated PG13. Documentary, Drama. Directed by James Marsh. Written by N/A. Starring Bob Ingersoll, Herbert Terrace, Stephanie Lafarge.

Feb
29
2012
Mark Zhuravsky • Staff Writer

I'm a prolific blogger, writer and editor who loves film.

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