Project Nim from James Marsh

From the Oscar-winning director of ‘Man On Wire’ comes another high-impact documentary film based on the real life of a fascinating individual; this one happens to be a chimp.  James Marsh has a remarkable ability to create a compelling and thought-provoking film that leaves the last word up to the viewer.  His new film, ‘Project Nim’, is definitely in that category.

It’s hardly a new concept, this urge to communicate with another species, but ‘Project Nim’ documents not only the highly publicized research by Herb Terrace in the 1970’s, but the complicated human and chimp relationships that evolved during the experiment.  Making use of actual footage taken during the course of Terrace’s study and interviews with the humans involved, the film is as much about “us” as it it is about “them” – the other species.

We have the ambitious professor of psychology, Terrace, and some of his assistants including a very “70’s” Bohemian mother of several children, and an 18-year-old graduate student, both of whom had been intimately involved with the professor at some point.  Nim the chimp was named as a sort of dig at Noam Chomsky, a linguist who advocated the theory that humans are unique in their grasp of language.  Terrace intended to disprove that theory, and his efforts made the news – for a short time.

Nim was raised to what would be young adulthood for a human in an environment where he was treated as a member of the family.  He ended up back in a cage when Terrace concluded that his experiment had failed, about five years from the time the 10-day-old chimp was taken from his natural mother to be the subject of  Terrace’s ‘breakthrough’ study.

‘Project Nim’ does an extraordinarily good job of exploring many aspects of human behavior and motivation as well as a very skillful job of documenting the chimp’s abilities and experiences.  Like the experiment, it also leaves a large gap unfilled.  That’s the one between “communication” and genuine understanding that exists between two humans, let alone a human and an animal.