Documentary by James Marsh
In the same vein as the powerful dolphin slaughter documentary “The Cove,” “Project Nim” explores the sometimes heartrending consequences of subjecting intelligent mammals — in this case, a chimp named Nim — to human exploits.
Nim entered the public eye in the mid-1970s, when Columbia professor Herbert Terrace launched an experiment to explore whether chimpanzees could communicate with humans using language. His plan was to raise Nim among people, starting with a large bohemian family in an Upper West Side brownstone. Treated as part of the brood, Nim frolicked with the kids, threw tantrums and even partook in pot and alcohol. It’s pretty adorable, not to mention bizarre.
Terrace eventually transferred Nim to a mansion housed by research assistants who played with him and taught him sign language. As Nim picked up signs, the experiment attracted worldwide attention.
Life was golden for everyone, until the inevitable happened: Nim grew larger, stronger and more prone to violent attacks. When one attack ripped a teacher’s cheek wide open, Terrace ended the experiment.
This is where you might want to get your hanky. As a displaced Nim gets passed around from one facility to another, his living conditions are often dreary. When he’s transferred to a medical research lab, things get downright horrific. To help guide us through the stages of Nim’s journey, director James Marsh interviews Nim’s various caretakers over the years. Some are marvelously eccentric, but most striking is the love they all (even those with battle scars) share for the chimp. Their unbounding affection is positively touching.
Marsh doesn’t need to resort to cheap sentiment to make you feel for Nim: The abundance of footage and photos tells the story itself. “Project Nim” can feel melodramatic at times, but it ultimately triggers empathy muscles you may not have known existed.