Project Nim
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Project Nim

The story of a mercurial primate held captive in service of misguided human curiosity, Project Nim is King Kong writ small. It’s also clear that Nim Chimpsky, Project Nim’s real-life protagonist, served as partial inspiration for Caesar, the CGI star of this summer’s popular Planet of the Apes prequel. Nim, like Caesar, was the subject of an extraordinarily unorthodox experiment, conducted in the mid ’70s by Columbia psychology professor Herbert Terrace. Terrace sought to test the canonical behavioural dichotomy of nature vs. nurture, and whether a chimpanzee raised in human surroundings could be taught to communicate, via sign language, in the same fashion as a human child.

Director James Marsh (of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire) reveals that while Nim did develop a significant vocabulary, it was equally true that Nim’s various caregivers often surrendered to their own animal instincts, and outrageously departed from standards of scientific propriety. Nim, meanwhile, quickly matured from a cuddly, precocious plaything to a powerful, aggressive adult, and, like Caesar, was subsequently betrayed, abandoned, and abused.

Project Nim is consistently compelling and genuinely affecting, though, as a documentary, lacks a disastrous third act comeuppance for humankind. It’s nonetheless superbly well made, skillfully combining marvellous archival footage with subtle reenactments and polished production values. Occupying the opposite end of the communicative spectrum to Nim’s rudimentary expressions, Marsh’s film is simultaneously a demonstration of the enormous gulf between humans and our near evolutionary neighbours, and a potent reminder of the degree to which we remain rooted in our basest urges.