Film: Project Nim
Director: James Marsh
Starring: Nim Chimpsky, Renne Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, Stephanie LaFarge, Jenny Lee, James Mahoney, Laura-Ann Petitto, Herbert Terrace, Bill Tynan.
Running time: 93 min.
As I sit down to tap away at this review of Project Nim, an excellent documentary about a chimp named Nim, I am faced with one considerable dilemma: I don't really know how to review a documentary. This is entirely due to the fact that I don't generally watch documentaries. I could probably count the amount of documentaries I've seen on one set of fingers. I'm not nearly well versed enough to know the ins and outs of documentary making, so I don't know how I'm supposed to critique that. I also don't know how you 'dislike' a documentary. Aside from the fact that all of the documentaries I've seen have been great (and Senna is a big advocate for that), I can easily get involved in things that I had no interest in beforehand. Mainly because documentaries usually tell stories that actually happened, so how am I supposed to critique that? I'll probably just get interested anyway. Such is the case with Project Nim, so don't laugh at me when I can't give you a review filled with technical terms and passages about lighting. But hey, that's not what I do anyway.
What we have here isn't merely a story about a chimp: it is a story of humanity. One thing that alarmed me is the way they treated Nim. These scientists seemed hell-bent on being able to make this chimp sign things so they could have a conversation, or to see how many connections they could make between the primate and humans. However, while they were doing all that they could to show everyone that maybe we are no different to the primate, they refused to actually accept the connections that blur the line between us. Nim was given a good life, in doses, but the way he was cast off by the people who he bonded with and the way he was treated when the scientists realised that things weren't working out for them is not the way humans would treat other humans. They searched so hard for humanity in him, yet they didn't apply a lot of humanity towards him. In the end, the scientists were humans, and Nim was a chimpanzee. It was this label that defined everything, and perhaps contributed to why an experiment like that couldn't work out. If anything, it says that humanity can't see past what they already know, which is pretty sad come to think of it.
The story is an interesting and complex one, perhaps giving us more of an insight into the human-like qualities in Nim that the scientists ever got in their experiment. I imagine that the story would be just as shocking and powerful if someone read it out to me in monotone, but the way it is treated in documentary form obviously adds more interest and gives it extra punch. It uses a blend of archive material (an abundance of it), re-enactments and interviews with the people involved to craft a story told from many different angles. There are some people who clearly loved Nim, and others who were indifferent towards him, driven by their failed ambitions. However, everything and everyone's opinion culminates into an experience that will probably leave you stunned and angry. It shows a portrait of humans who have ambitions, using something else to help them achieve their goals, but when it all works out, the cast that aside like erasing their work. The difference is, while the humans are telling the story, we see it through the eyes of Nim, a brilliant chimpanzee who should have been treated better. I may be able to get myself involved with any story a documentary throws at me, but I doubt that many of them would leave me in the state of anger that Project Nim did.
I may not be an expert on documentaries, but when a film like this and Senna don't even make the shortlist for the Best Documentary category at the Oscars, I have reason to get ape-shit mad.
What I got: