Can a non-human learn to speak? In 1973 Nim, a baby chimp, was deposited into a Manhattan family home in order to find this out. In this intriguing doc from the maker of Man on Wire the important people in Nim’s life tell his story.
Screened as part of NZIFF 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