NBFF Review: Project Nim

The 12th Annual Newport Beach Film Festival’s screening of Project Nim was one of the screenings I was most anticipating.  Project Nim is the new documentary from director James March, who previously made the Oscar winning documentary Man on Wire.  Since Man on Wire was both an incredibly well crafted documentary and also one of the most enjoyable docs I had ever seen, his latest feature about Nim, a famous chimpanzee from the 70s, was one I was going to give the benefit of the doubt to and hope for the best.  Once again, Marsh has made a film that is incredibly well crafted, but the enjoyable factor is replaced by a story that is somewhat comic, but more revealing, and fairly unsettling at times.  All of this is to say that Project Nim is another great film from Marsh, not as a crowd pleaser, but as an emotional journey.

The focus of the story is Nim, the famous chimpanzee of the 1970s, who became the focus of a landmark experiment that aimed to prove that an ape could learn to communicate, using sign language, if it were raised and nurtured in ways similar to a human child.  Ideally, the results of the project would be insightful; opening up more possibilities to learn more about how closely related these animals are with humans.  The film introduces this part of the story first and supplies plenty of archival footage and interviews/testimonials with the key participants involved in the study.  Similar to the style of Marsh’s last film, Man on Wire, he also provides dramatic imagery to help tell the story.

The film eventually evolves into a more heartbreaking journey, as we learn that the study eventually concluded and Nim was transferred to many different locations during the rest of his lifetime.  As we learn more from other people providing testimonials about Nim’s life and their involvement, it becomes very apparent that Nim was at times suffering at the hands of different people.  There are certainly factors at play, which involve the basic logic that an ape growing to adult status cannot be as easy to deal with as some would hope, given the amount of time he has spent living exclusively with humans.  However, the life Nim had to endure brings other concerns into focus beyond the actions of an unpredictable chimpanzee.

The key participants involved in Project Nim include Stephanie LaFarge, who acted as the maternal figure for Nim, after he was initially taken away from his mother, within days of his birth; Columbia professor Herbert Terrace, the head researcher, who made some interesting conclusions about the experiment and also wrote several articles and a book about the findings; Laura-Ann Pettito, who eventually became the head teacher of Project Nim for a time; Joyce Butler, who would serve as the next surrogate mother until the project ended; and Bill Tynan, who would also be participating in the research process.  All of these people and more would essentially serve as Nim’s family, as they are the only people he would be interacting with during the research study.  Despite the unorthodox nature of raising a chimp as a child, there was no real unorthodox way for them to handle the project, and as such they would go on to figure things out as they went along, while hoping to have Nim learn sign language as a proper form of communication between him and humans.  What we see and learn is how this process was handled, whether it was effective or at times careless in how these researchers acted.

Later on, following the end of Project Nim, we also learn of the facility Nim was sent to next.  We then hear from two more key participants.  One is Bob Ingersoll, the true hero of this film.  Bob befriended Nim in his new location and would go on to fight for Nim’s well being in the later stages of his life.  The other participant we learn from is Dr. James Mahoney, who ran a research lab, which would test medicines on primates.  From him, we learn about some of the harsh realities of the treatment of some of these apes and the ways in which he regrets so much of the inhumane actions he had to perform in the past.

Project Nim is essentially a biopic.  The difference is that this particular biopic goes over the life of an animal.  We pretty much learn everything about Nim from the day he was born and onward.  There are scenes that are fascinating in the ways we learn about Nim’s upbringing and how the researchers did manage to train him in the ways of sign language.  There are also a lot of comic and intriguing scenes that stem essentially from the fact that these people in Nim’s life were a lot of rich hippies and would delve into some of the more obscure realms of Nim’s personality, such as his maturing sexuality and his playful side.  But then, there are also scenes that are heartbreaking in the ways we learn about Nim’s eventual treatment and where he would end up in life.

The testimonials in this film are shot up close and really let you grasp onto the words of the participants.  Hearing about the ways in which Nim acted out in terms of violence against those who raised him and his reactions to seeing those again, who had once left him, are moving.  The film is not necessarily uneasy, but it has revealing moments that are effectively handled without feeling preachy or purposefully worked on to manipulate an audience’s reaction.  Yes, a documentary can be about precise editing to maximize an impact, but the feel of this film is handled in such a way in which I believe the filmmakers are smart enough to know what is appropriate and earned versus what can be too calculated in delivery.  Balance is a key component in this film.  Whether handling sign language and playtime with Nim or the ways in which he would lash out or how others would treat him and their reflections on that, I believe the film has been very well handled in conveying the sense of a properly constructed film.

Again, reflecting on what I saw in this film and the way the subject matter starts out in a fascinating manner, only to evolve into a story that hits many devastating, yet profound moments, I can easily say that this is a wonderful film.  The way it is constructed is superb, providing plenty of information, mixing up the presentation, whether it is the archive footage, dramatized moments, or the interviews, the whole film is expertly crafted.  Getting past the fact that this is a documentary, the film stands well as a great drama in general.  It is an interesting film, while managing to have a narrative structure that delivers on having engaging characters and a proper delivery of the various emotional beats.  Nim had an impact on those who raised and studied him in the past and Nim has now had an impact once again.

Click on the poster to visit the Newport Beach Film Festival website, and be sure to check back to Why So Blu throughout the week for more of my coverage of the festival.


Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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