Documentary fans will undoubtedly be highly anticipating the new film from director James Marsh, who brought us the fascinating Oscar-winning documentary Man On Wire a few years back. And thankfully Marsh doesn’t disappoint with Project Nim, an absolutely fascinating look at a unique experiment into human/animal communication.
The documentary chronicles an experiment which took place in the ‘70s where scientists attempted to raise a baby chimpanzee (cutely named “Nim”) as if it were a normal child, including living in a normal home as part of a large family, allowing it to sleep in a normal bed and basically treating it no differently than any other child. The goal being to see if a chimpanzee is raised as a human can it naturally start to communicate with language (if not with speech then by sign language, in proper sentences) the same way as we do?
Straight away the experiment the film focuses on raises some major ethical and moral questions, at least when it comes to what will become of the animal when the scientists are done. As one of the scientists explains, at the age of five chimpanzees don’t know they’re own strength and generally aren’t suitable to live with other humans all the time. What may have seemed like a good – some may even say novelty – idea at the beginning turns out to be something of a disaster.
Marsh has already proven himself with the compelling Man On Wire that he is an expert documentarian and he continues to prove that with Project Nim. He manages to wring laughs and heartache (and everything else in between) out of this bizarre tale, without getting needlessly sentimental or preachy. That’s a tough thing to pull off in a documentary.
Deftly exploring the question of nature versus nurture (although I personally would have liked to have seen the issue of what happened to Nim’s mother after he was taken away from her explored a little more), Project Nim is a fascinating insight into the ways of an animal so close to that of humans and yet so different at the same time, skillyfully telling both sides of the story. And ultimately, in interesting ways, it explores the idea that tampering with their natural way of life is surely not a good thing. This has audience pleaser written all over it.