Melbourne International Film Festival – Project Nim review

Project Nim – Directed by James Marsh. By Jess Lomas.

Project Nim plays the Melbourne International Film Festival Sunday 31 July.

“It was the seventies!” Is a line used in this documentary, to justify what was known as Project Nim; the forceful taking of a baby chimpanzee from its mother for the purpose of science. Led by Herbert S. Terrace, of New York’s Columbia University, Nim Chimpsky – as he was named – would be used to test the long debated theory of nature versus nurture. Raised as a human, first in a family home and then by various research assistants, Nim’s journey continued through the late seventies and eighties to a lab in Oklahoma, before being sold to a medical research centre owned by New York University. Nim would end his days at Black Beauty Ranch in Texas, at first the only chimp there, he would be reunited with his own kind before his death in March 2010.

While Nim was treated like a human by many of his carers, it was his ability to learn sign language that made the world stand up and take notice. Could a chimpanzee communicate with a human? Directed by James Marsh, who gave us the Oscar winning Man on Wire, Project Nim is a heart wrenching exposé of the thin line between humans and animals. It examines the lengths we go to in the name of scientific research; questions our humanity in firstly removing infant chimps from their natural environment, and secondly abandoning them when it no longer fulfils our needs.

Thankfully, amidst the shock and anger one feels towards many of the people involved in this project, who interestingly have come forward to speak, there are the few shining beacons of hope; those who continued to fight for Nim’s freedom and safety. To say Project Nim is a touching film is an understatement. Thoughtfully constructed and edited, you are at once laughing at Nim’s antics and soon after shedding a tear or two, the impact of the film resonating many hours later. Like Frankenstein and his monster, those who created Nim were responsible for his downfall, and while the documentary relies heavily on the emotional side of the issue, it is an interesting, if brief, exploration of late 20th century science.


Project Nim plays the Melbourne International Film Festival Sunday 31 July

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