Film Review: Project Nim

Project Nim is one of those films that has been on my radar for a very, very long time. A documentary about Nim Chimpsky, a Chimpanzee taken virtually from birth to be raised “as a human” as part of a scientific experiment into whether it was possible to extend human characteristics into primates – whether it is possible to teach them language and engage them in a conversation.

Essentially, as it’s put in the documentary, the nature versus nurture debate.

I have seen the trailer over and over, whenever I see a list of “must watch” or “must own” it always seems to crop up and I always go and look the trailer up and remind myself that at some point I need to get around to seeing it. The problem is I always had this nagging thought in the back of my head that Project Nim is a long documentary, not a short film, and as such, wasn’t something you settled down for with a bag of popcorn to watch.

As a result, it was always a near miss for me, I wanted to see it, critics and reviews said I needed to see it, but I could never bring myself to actually see it. That was until it suddenly appeared on BBC Four. Perfect. Sky+ it in glorious HD and I could keep it for when the moment is right without having to buy it and thus, feel compelled to watch it. So, it’s been sitting on my Sky box for a couple of weeks, waiting patiently for an evening with nothing on – or Sunday 9th February as it should be known. And so, without popcorn in tow, but with a nice big mug of hot chocolate I sat down to see if Nim Chimpsky, really could learn to speak.

All I can say is I am sorry it’s taken me so long to get this documentary into my life. I haven’t found something so engrossing and intriguing in a long time. It is fascinating. It is beautiful. It is captivating.

There is just something about this documentary, that even with all the questions it raises about the morals of taking a chimpanzee away from it’s mother and it’s natural environment, or what happens as the chimp grows up and gains strength, and as this is purely a finite scientific experiment, what happens when it finished? for example, Project Nim never loses sight or focus on what it is trying to achieve. That it is simply reporting the facts and explaining what happened as times and life progressed. It never judges, it never feels skewed towards a specific view point or angled towards one single opinion. It simply shows you what happens, as they happened, and lets all those involved have free reign over their memories, recollections and ultimately, their actions.

And it’s gripping as a result. You follow this story, almost blindly accepting the actions, however: right, wrong or questionable, of the people involved because at the end of the day, the principles behind which this whole experiment took place – can a chimp learn to communicate – fundamentally effects the whole order of human life. We search the galaxy looking to communicate with other beings and here is the exact same thing simply in reverse. Rather than searching outwards, we’re searching inwards. The question is trying to answer isn’t as much can a chimp learn to communicate but rather, can we communicate with a chimp. After all, do we need little green men from mars if/when we’ve got a brown hairy chimp from earth?

There are parts of this documentary that are almost unfathomably bizarre, but that almost makes it all the more charming and interesting. The principles on which it based; the principles of science imply that Project Nim should be a cold, clinical tale based upon laboratories and white coats – and instead you get met with a juxtaposition that removes all scientific detail and replaces them unashamedly with a way of life that a human would struggle to develop naturally in let alone a chimpanzee, and yet you never feel like this needed to be questioned. The experiment is so bizarre to start with you just accept this is the way is was meant to be anyway. And as they say in the documentary, this was the 1970s after all.

I urge you to see Project Nim, but look at it as a documentary not a film. It is there to show you what happened to Nim and to let you come to your own conclusions, form your own opinions and seek your own answers to a question that could completely reshape the way you view the world, our place within society and how our thirst for knowledge and power ultimately corrupts and destroys anything we require to expand it.

9 out of 10 stars (9 / 10)

Posted on by 5WC in Film First Edition

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