5-Word 365 #210 – Project Nim

Yeah, I know this is going up a bit later than usual today, but there’s an explanation: I fell asleep. I’m not proud of it. Anyway, it’s 8:55 BST here in Edinburgh, so it is still Saturday somewhere which means I still haven’t missed a day. And now I’m going back to bed.

Project Nim

Leave the damn chimps alone.

Project Nim is the story of a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (ha ha), born in 1973 at Oklahoma’s Institute for Primate Studies. At two weeks old, he was removed from his mother and taken to the hippy Brady Bunch-like household of Stephanie LaFarge where he was to be raised as if he were a human baby. This was an experiment to see if Nim could develop the ability to comprehend and communicate in sign language, overseen by Professor Herbert Terrace from the Department of Psychology at Columbia University. Not human, yet no longer entirely chimp either, Nim will spend the next 26 years as a science experiment, celebrity and noble cause before winding up at a Texas donkey sanctuary.

Have you seen last year’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes? If you haven’t, you really should. Watching Project Nim today, I was struck by the number of story points the two films have in common. Normally that fact would just be a random curiosity, but when one of the films in question is about our simian cousins starting a revolution led by a charismatic chimpanzee and the other is a true story, that’s the point where I start feeling somewhat perturbed.

Nim’s story is presented as a mix of talking head interviews, archive footage and the odd re-creation by director James Marsh (Man On Wire, Shadow Dancer). It is an occasionally humorous, often deeply moving examination of one animal’s resilience in the face of human hubris and the astonishingly dumb decisions of supposed smart people. Whether it’s a surrogate mother with possible Oedipal tendencies, or a language teacher with a fondness for pot – and a willingness to share – very few of the people in the movie come off as completely well-adjusted individuals. Frankly, it’s a surprise Nim didn’t raise a full-scale revolution himself. What an ending that would have been. That said though, there are some deeply touching moments to be found here, most of which involve Bob Ingersoll, devoted Deadhead and one of Nim’s later teachers and best friends.

Nim and Bob. That sounds like a sitcom, doesn’t it? No? Just me then.

After scoring Marsh’s episode of the Red Riding trilogy in 2009, the director has drafted Dickon Hinchliffe back to do the honours here, too. The result is a score that gracefully permeates the entire film, but is particularly effective during the more than a little affecting final twenty minutes or so. It is right up there with his score for Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone.

While obviously not as uplifting or award-winning (coincidence?) as Man On Wire, Project Nim is a thought-provoking film that says as much about our capacity for selfishness bordering on cruelty as it does about chimpanzees capacity for language.

Go ahead, punk. Make my day.

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