While there are those naysayvers who continue to deny the realities of evolution, the truth of the matter is that human beings are just one evolutionary rung up the ladder from the monkeys from which we evolved. In this sense, monkeys are our first cousins and perhaps in studying their behavior, we can gain some valuable insight into our own. This is certainly the underlying premise of PROJECT NIM, a fascinating new documentary that opens in limited release on Friday, July 8.
One of the most talked about films at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, PROJECT NIM traces the entire life cycle of a remarkably astute and compelling chimpanzee named Nim, whose “human” like attributes are truly astounding and eye-opening. Nim became a bit of a celebrity in the 1970s when he was raised as a human child and taught sign language in a linguistic experiment overseen by Herb Terrace, an observational psychologist at Columbia University. Nim eventually learned a wide vocabulary of words and interacted with a variety of people over the years. The attention from the scientific community and the world at large was tremendous and director James Marsh and his editor Jinx Godfrey skillfully weave together interviews with all the participants in the “human” drama, allowing the characters’ motives and agendas emerge. Some of the subjects come off as sleazy opportunists but most are committed scientists and avid animal lovers who have a special intimacy with the cerebral chimp.
During the time that he was being celebrated in the popular media, Nim’s life was enviable by almost any human standards……comfortable living quarters, gourmet meals, a loving human family and behavioral scientists at his beck and call. However, as he becomes older and feebler and the media spotlight fades, as is recounted in the film’s later chapters, the story becomes a truly heartbreaking one. In older age, Nim is thrown into a miserable existence that’s completely foreign to the life he knew. Things only get worse and worse until he meets his most loyal friend and champion, a Deadhead grad student who fights for the chimp’s well-being.
Director James Marsh, who won an Best Documentary Oscar for MAN ON WIRE, finds the emotional truths of man’s often callous treatment of “inferior” primates in ways that are unsettling but also bracing and thoroughly involving. His camera tracks through recreated locations to give the settings greater presence and also uses existing archival footage that often provides a counterpoint to the voice-over. In telling this unusual story with aplomb and visual technique, Marsh has crafted an emotional and thought-provoking tour through an amazing life. The film is being distributed stateside by Roadside Attractions. For more information and to view a film trailer, visit: http://www.project-nim.com/