From director James Marsh, Project Nim examines the study undertaken in the 1970’s which was an attempt to prove a chimpanzee, raised by humans, could be taught to act human and communicate through Sign Language.
The documentary includes interviews from several of those involved in the project including Herbert S. Terrace who led and championed the study for years but eventually concluded Nim only learned signs tied to certain rewards but never developed a full understanding of the language he was using.
Project Nim has an amazing wealth of documentary footage taken from the study. With this footage, and the interviews, Marsh puts together a film that not only documents the study but captures the emotional experiences of those involved with Nim including those who only saw him as an experiment, those who thought of him as part of their family, and those who were physically attacked by a chimpanzee they had come to view as a friend.
The film showcases the vastly different approaches used to teach Nim which caused friction from the outset of the study. Given the unorthodox nature of the study’s early days, and Nim’s violent outbursts in the later years, it’s a wonder the study was able to continue for as long as it did.
Although the documentary examines the ethical and emotional fallout of the project it doesn’t take a side as to whether the study was successful or not. Released today on DVD, those intrigued by the subject matter should definitely give the film a look. I’m not sure the documentary holds up to multiple viewings, but it’s certainly worth a rental.
[Lions Gate, DVD $19.98]