Project Nim Reviews
Tells the story of a chimpanzee taken from its mother at birth and raised like a human child by a family in a brownstone on the upper West Side in the 1970s.
The very idea of a chimp being brought up in human society is a fascinating one. But it quickly becomes apparent that this experiment is doomed to failure. There is a very good reason that you do not see people keep chimpanzees as pets - they can be extremely aggressive and powerful animals. On numerous occasions carers were bitten and maimed. One woman had a hole ripped in the side of her face while another had her head repeatedly beaten off the pavement by the ape. But the over-riding feeling engendered by the documentary is one of sadness. This poor creature is let down by those who took him from his mother and decided to rear him as a human.
It seems to me quite outrageous that an animal taught to communicate with people and live in a house should ever have been sent to an animal experiment centre. The essential message of the film is that you should not try to transport a wild animal into human society and not expect repercussions. Some of the people in the film are just guilty of naivety, dangerous as it was. As much as a story about a remarkable primate, it's a story about human stupidity, human callousness and - thanks to Bob Ingersoll - human kindness. It's overall a remarkable documentary.
Based on Elizabeth Hess's book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, Project Nim is a well presented, but unsettling and thoroughly depressing story. The way the events unfold can be infuriating to behold. It's much deeper than I expected. This is not some sentimental reminiscence concerning a cute chimp. It takes a surprisingly atypical point of view. The documentary goes to great lengths not to misrepresent Nim as human and moreover doesn't push the humans as barbarians either. I admire that level of impartiality. Yet I wanted to be more emotionally invested in this story. Make no mistake, it made me profoundly sad. It was an admittedly affecting chronicle of an experiment gone wrong. But it's distressing when the monkey shows more humanity than the people.
On the surface, the documentary "Project Nim" looks like a no-lose proposition with its fascinating subject, who is recalled with loads of home movies and interviews with many of the participants. But where this sentimental film goes wrong is in its lack of critical distance which brings mixed results concerning the primates here. While we get insights into chimpanzee behavior, the same cannot be said for the human beings whose attitudes are explained blithely away by one person when she says it was the 70's. That might be true if you were talking about giving a joint to your kid's babysitter; not so much when you're giving a strong chimpanzee a joint.(I imagine people at these reunions start by showing each other their scars.) And as much as Herbert Terrace comes off as unsympathetic, he is right that the results of the experiments were questionable, to say the least, as the researchers possibly blurred results by their anthropomorphizing Nim.
Nim's tale resembles the shape of a serialized narrative - he is sadly passed from one caretaker to the next, each one mostly well-intentioned and loving but also misguided and inevitably self-serving (as the professor himself)! Sad chapters of Nim's life are following and those chapters one by one become more astounding, confounding, and compelling. Yes, Nim acquires some communication skills, but he is never able to speak for himself! And all others just fail to speak for him!
Exploitation of Nim for human gain was appalling, yet there are important aspects which Marsh leaves unexplored, and that was the only negative remark about the movie. At the end, at least, we all agree that Nim was taken advantage of in the exercise of shabby science, and things like that should never happen!
Nim grows up and grows strong and can no longer be trusted not to instinctively act out as any chimp would thus being shipped back to a "chimp prison" and then to a lab where chimps are injected with various cures for diseases. Finally, Nim ends up in animal preserve in Texas where he lives out his life until he dies at the age of 26.
Humans do not come off well in this movie. The book that Project Nim is based on written by Elizabeth Hess is a recommended read. Watch this movie and you will be delighted at Nim's savvy "intelligence" and haunted by the travails of his life among us enlightened ones. As mentioned in the documentary chimps are very forgiving...put me in Nim's shoes and I wouldn't be so gracious.
A must see movie! (8-20-11)