Film Review: Project Nim

Project Nim is a fascinating documentary about an experiment that took place in the 1970s. The film offers a balanced view, and yet is most heart-wrenching.

In 1973, Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace began to conduct a radical experiment to see with a chimpanzee could learn to communicate with language in the same way as a human child. Baby Nim was taken away from is mother and sent to live with a family on the Upper East Side in New York. Within a few months, Nim is able to communicate with sign language, yet his relationship with humans is never straightforward…

Project Nim is an effective documentary because it retains a sense of objectivity whilst dealing with an emotive subject. James Marsh’s film attempts to display the various viewpoints without positioning one view above others. Speaking to a number of individuals involved in the project, the film offers a balanced survey of events that unfolded.

For those who are not overly familiar with the experiment, Project Nim offers a real sense of peril as well as educating with the facts. The various stages of Nim’s life all seem to have an inherent danger, albeit from a variety of sources. This is one of the factors which really engages the audience. This sense of peril is somewhat placated with the various anecdotes that are told. These are often amusing, and work well to lighten the tone.

Allowing the participants of the experiment to each give their view, certain issues emerge. It is quite apparent who had Nim’s best interests at heart and who were more concerned about extenuating issues. The documentary does not illustrate this in the way it chooses to portray characters, however. As each participant is given time to discuss their time with Nim and the experiment, some clear heroes and villains emerge just by the way they speak about the project.

Project Nim raises some interesting questions about the nature of the particular experiment, as well as this kind of scientific research as a whole. Nim is an incredibly cute subject, which makes the sense of tragedy all the more poignant. Again, Marsh’s film does not seek to instil a certain viewpoint; the audience is left to make up their own minds about the ethics of such an experiment.

The film intersperses video footage from the time of the experiment with interviews and reenactments. The style works well, and there are a few nice touches such as the fading out as each participant’s segment ends. Marsh seems to have interviewed most of the main players, offering a rounded approach.

Those who are well aware of the experiment will find Project Nim absorbing for the insights it offers. Others are likely to be fascinated by such an interesting an unusual tale.