Directed by James Marsh, Project Nim is the story about a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky who is used as research to communicate through sign language in order to develop contact with humans. The documentary explores the research with interviews from scientists and animal trainers about the late chimpanzee and how he managed to touch the lives of those he communicated. The result is a truly heartwarming yet exhilarating story about a chimpanzee who touches the lives of those who cared for him.
The film is about a little chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky who is taken from his mother in Oklahoma two weeks after he was born to be part of a research to see how animals could communicate with humans. Though this research would span for nearly five years and through various female teachers who become part of this project headed by Herbert Terrace of Columbia University. With another man named Bill Tynan part of the project as it was moved to various locations including a very rich estate with a pond and trees in upstate New York. With media attention about this project and Nim’s progress from learning more than a hundred words via sign language. Things eventually fell apart through departures, financial difficulties, and Nim’s growing animal urges that led to the closing of the project as Nim returns home to Oklahoma in the place where he was born.
Despite difficulties in interacting with other chimps until Nim was cared by the eccentric Bob Ingersoll, Nim would find a human to connect with until he was taken away by a pharmaceutical animal testing lab from NYU. Controversy over what happens to Nim becomes public including Terrace’s piece about the project as Terrace would later express regret over the report he gave. Though Nim would be freed from the lab and purchased by the Black Beauty Ranch in Texas. The trauma that he faced at the lab only caused Nim to feel lost until the early 1990s when Ingersoll returned after being banned from the facilities for a decade. With a few chimps coming to the ranch, Ingersoll would help ensure Nim’s happiness as well as see the progression of the new chimps in learning to sign.
Told largely through archival home movies, news reports, and interviews with the people that took care of Nim. James Marsh crafts a film that explores the unique world of these people who have a very special connection to this chimpanzee. They all talk about how much Nim impacted them where they were more than just teachers. They treat him as if he is a human being despite his growth into being a full-fledge chimpanzee unaware of his strength. With a lot of these video footage about Nim’s progression from learning one word to more than a hundred. Marsh goes a very straightforward narrative to tell Nim’s story though he would use a few re-enactments for key scenes about the different environment Nim would encounter.
For the interview segments, Marsh would utilize certain frames for the people to tell their part in Nim’s story yet when they’re about to be gone from the story. Marsh’s camera would slowly pan in a tracking shot from the person to a wall. This approach to the style in these interview segments as it’s shot by cinematographer Michael Simmonds with set design by Markus Kirschner to give these people a chance to state their piece. The most interesting character aside from Nim is Bob Ingersoll who is this eccentric hippie that truly loved Nim as he taught Nim the sign language to smoke some weed. It’s among some of the funnier moments in the film as some of it is quite light-hearted but also serious. Overall, Marsh creates a truly engaging yet touching film about a chimp and the researchers that cared for him.
Editor Jinx Godfrey does a brilliant job with the editing in utilizing the home movies to help play up the narrative and inter-cut with the people who are being interviewed with this tight yet masterfully-crafted cut presented in a methodical tone. Music composer Dickon Hinchliffe creates a dazzling score that mixes low-key orchestral arrangements with folk instruments to enhance some of the drama that plays out during the film.
Project Nim is an engrossing yet enchanting film from James Marsh. It is definitely one of 2011’s most intriguing and heart-warming documentaries about man’s communication with an animal. Notably one as charming and loveable like Nim Chimpsky who is definitely one unforgettable chimpanzee. Project Nim is a marvelous film from James Marsh.
James Marsh Films: (The Animator of Prague) - (The Burger and the King: The Life & Cuisine of Elvis Presley) - (Wisconsin Death Trip) - (The Team (2005 film)) - (The King (2005 film)) - Man on Wire - Red Riding: In the Year of Our Lord 1980 - (Shadow Dancer) - The Theory of Everything
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