Project Nim

“This haunting life story is an exquisite example of non-fiction filmmaking as full-bodied, emotionally complex drama.” — David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter

Director: James Marsh
Year: 2011
Country: UK
Running time: 93 mins
Genres: Animals

Producer: Simon Chinn
Based on the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess
Photography: Michael Simmonds
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe

Colour and B&W

With: Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Jenny Lee, Laura-Ann Petitto, Joyce Butler, Bill Tynan, Renee Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, James Mahoney

Festivals: Sundance 2011

Directing Award (World Cinema Documentary), Sundance Film Festival 2011 

In 1973 a newborn chimpanzee was deposited into a Manhattan family home. He was put there by Herbert Terrace, a behavioural psychologist at Columbia University, who wanted to test Noam Chomsky’s thesis that language is peculiar to humans. Could a non-human animal learn sign language? The chimp was called Nim Chimpsky; the study was Project Nim.

In this unlikely biopic, fresh interviews with all the important people in Nim’s life are woven together with images from a rich trove of contemporaneous footage. As in his Oscar-winning Man on Wire (NZIFF08), James Marsh’s carefully cadenced storytelling is the foundation for an increasingly eye-widening – and eye-dampening – journey.

After his early years with a quintessential, self-described ‘rich hippy’ Upper West Side family, Nim is transplanted to a university-owned upstate mansion. The chimp’s development and education is complicated throughout by romantic upheavals between Terrace and his ‘researchers’ – and between the researchers themselves…

For all its ebullience, enchantment and at times sheer cuteness, this is not one for children. What begins as an intriguing account of an unusual experiment shifts imperceptibly, and without a moment of moralism or hyperbole, into a story of almost Euripidean proportions – of trust and betrayal, of vengeance and redemption. — TM

“In this stylised but achingly real doco, Marsh succeeds in telling a layered story about the ways we love, the ways we communicate and the things we do to protect those closest to us.” — Sasha Bronner, Vanity Fair

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