Sep 28, 2011

Review: Project Nim

Director: James Marsh
Release Date:  29 September 2011
Rating: (M)
Runtime: 93 mins

In almost every way, documentaries are tough going: a challenge to drum up funds, difficult to make circumstantially, tricky to judge how the final version will emerge from the editing suite, and hard to sell to distributors and cinemas. It seems vitally important and wholly miraculous that excellent feature-length documentaries such as Project Nim, the new offering from James Marsh (Director of 2008's Academy Award winning Man on Wire), are made at all.   

Nim as an infant in Stephanie LaFarge's house.
The true star of this wacky ensemble is of course Nim, the chimpanzee who was taken from his mother at a research facility in Oklahoma at just two-weeks of age in the 1970s. The reason: to act as the research subject for Dr. Herbert Terrace, a Professor at Columbia University interested in studying communication between chimps and humans. Brought to New York (an apartment on the Upper Westside) to live with Stephanie LaFarge and her family, Nim was initially raised in a very loving, relaxed environment: he was unequivocally part of the family. The documentary tracks his subsequent move to Delafield Estate in Riverdale (owned by Columbia University, 'estate' is putting it mildly), where he lived with a number of teachers and researchers and learned how to sign and communicate, only to be ripped away from this safe haven: the ordeals he had no choice but to endure thereafter are absolutely heartbreaking. 

Bill and Nim, playing on Delafield Estate.
What could have been a fascinating look at pioneering research—the quest to share and experience language between different species in a coherent, grammatically correct way—becomes so much more with a prodigious Director like Marsh. The people in this documentary are so very everyday and yet they're also portrayed in a light and a way that makes them complex characters, driven by desperate desires and emotions. Marsh effortlessly builds and captures these personas over the course of the narrative. His near-seamless exposition feels like a silk scarf that has slipped past in the wind: only visible momentarily.

Dr. Herb Terrace seems to be competing with a number of notable public figures for the title of 'most odious person alive': finding a more egotistical, self-serving, spineless person would indeed be difficult. Nim's first carer Stephanie LaFarge means very well, but perhaps suffers from a lack of common sense that was never destined to stand her in good stead in the long term. 

Bob and Nim: friends for life.
The audience also has the pleasure of viewing Joyce and Bill in action, teachers who were at Delafield Estate during the project whose expansive minds match their enormous hearts. Perhaps the most welcome surprise is Grateful Dead fan and all-out hippie Bob—out of everyone who cared for Nim over the years, Bob truly would stop at nothing to make sure he was safe, happy, and treated with respect. This man (and probably he alone) seemed to understand what it took to be part of the life of a creature outside our own species. We as viewers are fortunate to have shared even that small amount of time with Bob and Nim: most certainly mirroring how Bob felt about the beautiful, intelligent friend he found in Nim Chimpsky.


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