I've been in a documentary state of mind of late. Today I watched another classic doc, Project Nim, made by James Marsh, who is probably best known for his 2008 doc, Man on Wire.
The 2011 film documents a project led by Herbert Terrace in the early 1970's at Columbia University, involving teaching sign language to a chimp named Nim Chimpsky. Many assistants come in and out of Nim's life, all of whom become very attached to the chimp as its ability to communicate grows. However, after a few years, chimpanzees become too dangerous to keep as pets. After Nim becomes too aggressive, the doc follows the mostly sad tale of what happened to him post-Columbia.
The story will make your eyes moist, though it's not as tragic as you might think going in. This film hits a very important topic, though, as Nim became the first animal to be able to communicate with humans with something close to structured sentences. Moral issues abound, The film does a good job at hitting on the complexities of thoughts, feelings, and greed with regards to both humans and chimps and their interaction with each other.
One of the most touching moments to me is when one of the assistants was recalling the time he spent with Nim, over thirties years ago, and stated that it was the absolute best time of his life. The strong bonding between the species was pretty amazing.
The doc would have benefited from a bigger budget and more time spent describing Nim's last five years. But, as is, I enjoyed it, though at times it did make me sad. It's a very unique topic, and through the human interaction with this very special chimpanzee, we inevitably learn more about our species than our very close Earthly relative.
My rating: 8.2/10
Jon David Rosten, author of
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