Project NIM

Project VIM

Is it possible for a chimpanzee to communicate with humans? Project NIM, a radical social experiment done in the late 1970’s tried to conquer this question, when a group of scientists from Columbia University pulled a chimpanzee from his natural born mother and placed him into a human family. The eclectic group of scientists, psychologists and sign language teachers’ hope was that through sign language Nim, the chimp, would learn to communicate with his new family.

Director James Marsh, most recently known for Man on Wire, a documentary that follows a trapeze artist’s attempt to cross the World Trade Center on a tight rope wire, takes his audience on a moving journey exploring Nim’s life and the controversial experiment that created it.

The story is gripping, elegant and thought-provoking. Nim goes through the same stages that a human child goes through, and the audience accompanies him throughout his journey.

Marsh struggles with an interesting dilemma, to tell a story without being able to interview its central subject. He chooses to tell Nim’s story instead from a third person perspective, using bits and pieces from the individuals surrounding him. This dilemma creates an elastic force between Nim and his human partisans evolving into two narratives: that of Nim quickly adapting to his surroundings, as he learns to sign and to communicate, and that of his human teachers who feel it is their social responsibility to perform an experiment that places an animal out of its natural environment and behavior.

Marsh quickly picks up on the latter of the two and runs with it. He places many of his interviewed subjects, such as Herbert Terrace, Stephanie Lafarge and Laura-Ann Petitto, who were all part of the experiment, speaking directly about human nature rather than the intent of the experiment.

The documentary fits into Marsh’s style of filming in which he recreates memories of past events to recreate the narrative. As effective as this may be, at times the documentary seems melodramatic.

Whether his intent or not, Marsh uses the documentary to push his opinions regarding the faults of scientists, rather than the experiment itself and it takes away from the central subject of the movie, Nim and the experiment.

Nim had just as much to offer as his human counterparts, it seems that he has learned more from their relationship than they did.