Hot Docs: Project Nim [James Marsh, 2011]

Toronto – Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat – I am not the biggest fan of animals.  Sure, I’m able to admire the beauty of nature and I’ve got nothing against animals per se, but frankly, nature scares the crap out of me sometimes.  It’s a real testament then, to the power of this documentary that it had me caring about and becoming emotionally invested in the outcome of Nim’s story.  And a fascinating story it is.

Project Nim shows us the life of a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (get it?), taken away from his mother moments after his birth and placed in the care of a human family as part of an experiment to see if chimpanzees could acquire language.  From there, we see his interactions with the individuals at the various different places he is sent to.   Many of those interviewed show a real love for Nim, having grown pretty close to the chimp.   

Nim in fact becomes much more real and likeable as a character than a good chunk of the humans seen.  In the end, he seems much more “human” than many of the humans he interacts with.  Herb Terrace, the man who initiated this project (and who reminds me slightly of Jerry Stiller), is one of these humans who doesn’t come across in the best light.  As a social scientist, you can understand why he does what he does, and I don’t really blame him, but he comes off as a bit opportunistic at times.  He is, however, completely open and honest about where he went wrong and why he chose to ultimately abandon the project.

Much more likeable is  primatologist Bob Ingersoll.  Bob is possibly the single strongest presence in Nim’s life.  Not only did he spend a significant amount of time with him while he was at their facility but he kept track of where Nim was and fought for his best interests throughout.  I’d say Bob was the best friend that chimp ever had. 

Overall, this was quite an entertaining and compelling documentary. 

Posted on by Paul in Hot Docs

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