Rating: ★★★★☆

Last summer, a genius feat of cinema programming meant that the surprisingly impressive Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn’t the only film making comment about mankind’s capacity to overstep its reach with regard to how it treats animals. James Marsh’s heartbreaking documentary, Project Nim, about an exceptional animal who was categorically failed by overzealous humans at almost every turn, piggy-backed on the very same release date, making for a thought-provoking and unique double-bill. Despite the more inherently accessible nature of a big-budget tentpole, this stunning doc probes in a manner no less engaging and just as arresting as the very best Hollywood film. This is an important and devastating work about the fascinating interplay between human beings and animals.

Nim is a chimp and the unfortunate star of a compelling though ethically questionable 1970s scientific study in which, at 2 weeks old, he was sent to live with a scientist, who would raise Nim as though he were a human child. The primary goal was to observe whether sign language could be irrefutably taught to a chimp, such that he could adequately communicate with humans, while at once tackling the prevalent nature vs. nature theories of the time.

It’s little surprise that James Marsh – whose fantastic Man on Wire scooped up the Academy Award for Best Documentary – has crafted another slick, visually dynamic effort here, combining locked-off talking heads with outstanding, little-seen home video footage, and some brand-new reconstructions of the various locations relevant to the experiment. Much more so than Marsh’s previous film, which pondered the artistic and philosophical value of a death-defying feat, Project Nim reaches grand emotional highs through its examination of the nature vs. nature principle, and the tastelessly unscrupulous scientific ethics of the people involved.

Most fascinating is how the film observes the similarities and disparities between humans and chimps, from the shared joy of play to more curious psychological hypotheses, such as Nim’s attachment issues, in which he found himself able to turn his human “parents” against one another. The scientists themselves, however, quickly prove muddled, even arrogant as a result of the power their wielded, thinking it appropriate to give Nim drugs and alcohol; after all, one would not do this to a baby, so how is that acceptable for a baby animal?

The general conclusion seems to be that humans, though more intelligent, are also more inherently troublesome as a result; a petty custody battle develops between the scientists, particularly between graduate student Stephanie and a younger, more attractive student, Laura. While Stephanie desperately tries to maintain control, Nim himself goes through a hilarious teenage rebellion of sorts, demonstrating that while his ability to articulate was questionable, he was in his own way fiercely intelligent, capable of running rings around the humans charged with caring for him.

Of course, once the project picked up steam and media interest grew, this moral debate was engaged with, chiefly that to raise a chimp as a human and then to cast him off into captivity once the experiment did not yield the required results, defies the natural order and denies the chimp consistency as well as the ability to adequately integrate socially. The intensity of this argument only furthers as Nim grows older and larger, at which point he can and does overpower his human carers, resulting in at least one scene that will have you remembering the more harrowing scenes in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

While the abundance of talking heads might render it less exhilarating than Man on Wire, the outstanding footage and the more thought-provoking questions it asks more than compensates for this. Most difficult to watch are the repentant, regretful testaments of the scientists involved, for creating a situation which they were entirely unprepared for due to the lack of a previous precedent. Aside from a few kind though mostly powerless people who fought for Nim’s freedom, the view of humans here is not a kind one, demonstrating their failure to take some simple steps that would have improved Nim’s life (such as buying some more chimps for him to live with post-experiment), and on a scientific level, their methods seem positively reprehensible.

This is one of those great documentaries which could be transposed almost without change into a heartbreaking Hollywood tearjerker. A mildly uplifting resolution does to an extent provide some catharsis, but the more downcast, even sinister undercurrent throughout rings through to the end, acknowledging a set of humans who robbed a chimp of anything resembling a normal life for an incompetently-composed study of scarce scientific credence. Easily the best documentary of 2011, Project Nim is almost certainly Oscar-bound.

Quality:

Something a moot point given the film’s DVD-only release so far, but the transfer is as robust as to be expected for a documentary; the reconstructions add some dynamism to the presentation, and the score is particularly well-placed throughout the film’s various emotional highs and lows.

Extras:

Making Nim (32 minutes):
Making Nim is a compelling distilation of the documentary filmmaking process, to make a film that resembles a fictional narrative yet benefits from the plausibility of reality. There are also plenty of clips here that didn’t make it into the final film, and are probably fascinating enough to have deserved being put in there.

Director Marsh seems perceptive and intelligent, keen not to render of Nim something that he isn’t, a respectable stance given that he and the film would probably benefit from a sensationalist trajectory. Marsh goes into surprising detail about the assembly of the B-roll reconstructions used throughout the film, and astoundingly, for any footage created that required the use of chimps, a man in a suit was used to ensure that the film could not be critised on ethical grounds.

Comprehensively, this featurette convinces that more so than the average documentary, a world of work and heart has gone into it, and like Marsh’s Man on Wire, this fastidious approach seems to be something we can always expect from his films.

Bob’s Journey (10 minutes):
A constant to Nim in his later life, Bob Ingersoll felt he had a responsibility to act as an ambassador and represent Nim’s story worldwide. The hero of the story in a way, Bob comes across as a genuinely, thoroughly decent person who is just happy that Nim’s tale has reached a bigger audience, and continues to tirelessly promote it.

Audio Commentary with director James Marsh:
Will be of interest to those who were intrigued by the Making Nim featurette; Marsh again comes off as both caring and very astute, detailing the filmmaking process and the themes of the film in further detail.

Photo Gallery (1 ninute):
A quick cycle through a slide show of some pictures of Nim’s life. Sure, it’s cute, but a lot of it is already featured in the film and it is just too brief.

PROJECT NIM:

Film: 4.5/5
James Marsh has crafted a towering documentary which summarises a complex argument within a snappily-paced 93-minute documentary.

Visuals: 3.5/5
By its sheer nature it’s not as visually involving as Man on Wire, but the array of footage is immaculately put-together, and glues you to the screen.

Audio: 4/5
A wonderful score uncharacteristic to the documentary form helps hammer home the emotional peaks, and only increase its already mountainous emotional resonance.

Extras: 4/5
Provides thoroughly compelling insights into both the documentary process as a whole and further food-for-thought on the experiment itself. Director Marsh especially offers plenty of insight.

Presentation: 4/5
Box art is minimalist but extremely effective and succinct at conveying what the film is about, while the menus offer some lovely footage of a young Nim.

Overall: 4/5
The reason to get it is for the outstanding film at the forefront, and while there could have been more content extras-wise, it’s still a nourishing package and one of the best of the year.

Project Nim is available on DVD from today.

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This article was first posted on January 9, 2012