Chimpanzees are very similar to humans. They have emotions, they're intelligent and they can even communicate on a limited basis. They are not, however, humans. Project Nim is a disturbing documentary that looks at the life of one chimp - named Nim - who was raised from birth as a child in a human home.
Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire), Project Nim blends interviews, archival footage and reenactments to tell the tragic story of the chimp. The failed experiment of raising Nim as a human is only the first of several sad stages in his life. It only goes downhill from there.
Most people would agree that having a young chimp as a pet, or friend, has crossed their mind at one point or another. They're cute, they're clever and they can wear people clothes. Less acknowledged is that chimpanzees quickly grow to become large, powerful animals, and potentially dangerous animals as well.
To go into detail with any of Nim's various circumstances would be to betray what makes the movie alluring; suffice to say, just when you think Nim has hit rock bottom, things get even worse (the film does end on a slight positive note, however). Marsh's matter-of-fact approach to the circumstances of Nim's life works well; the filmmaker knows that the subject speaks for itself. More impactful are the surprisingly candid interviews with the humans who knew Nim; these are the people who loved Nim, but who also betrayed him and caused his often-miserable existence.
Nim was raised as a human child, but when he grew up to become an unruly, jealous and at times aggressive youth, he was abandoned by those who loved him - and who he loved. Few people - especially the people featured in the movie - would do that to a human kid, but that's what they did to him. They raised him as a child, but when they finally realized he was an animal, they turned their back on him, as if animals - especially chimps - don't have feelings or develop personal connections. The interviews with the people show that many of them feel remorse for what they did to Nim, but their actions speak louder.
Project Nim is a sad yet simultaneously arresting documentary. Marsh attacks the subject matter with diligence and yet he smartly doesn't inject himself or his opinions into the film. The material he's collected is more than enough to take hold of the audience without taking a strong stance one way or the other, the story he shows heartbreaking. While Nim's suffering could have been avoided at several points throughout his life, the truth is that his fate was sealed the moment he was born. That is tragic, and makes for a very good documentary.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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