Seatbelts were more interactive in the 70s.

Theatrical Release Date: 07/08/2011
Director: James Marsh
Rated: PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images.
Runtime: 1 hour, 33 minutes


Smile for the birdie.

Director of 2008′s superb documentary, “Man on Wire“, in 2011 James Marsh is bringing audiences “Project Nim”.

Nim is the name of a newborn chimpanzee selected to be the focus of a study at Columbia University regarding the age-old debate of nature vs. nurture. Could we take this wild animal, raise him like a human child, and not only strip away some of the wildness but also teach them to communicate with us?

Using a couple of dramatized reenactments but relying mostly on archival footage and recent interviews with the people involved, Marsh charts out Nim’s life; taking him from his mother in an Oklahoma primate studies institution to place with a graduate student in 1973, to putting him in a more controlled and observed setting at a Columbia-owned estate in 1975, back to Oklahoma in 1977, into an animal testing lab shortly thereafter, and in 1982 to a wildlife refuge set up in Texas initially for abused and abandoned horses.

It’s a lot of change for Nim, and the people who cared for him over those years. But what makes this documentary so startling is how little we feel the hand of Marsh manipulating things. Much like “Man on Wire”, what we are given is a fascinating story – minus some larger message being crammed down our throats. Even the primate testing segment (which may be tough for some animal lovers) isn’t so much there to tell us that using chimpanzees and other animals to test vaccines on is wrong; it’s there because it’s part of Nim’s journey.

And somehow, within just over an hour and a half, Marsh is able to present over 20 years of Nim’s life. We get to know him, and just as importantly, we get to know the humans closest to him over that time. Again, there are no overt judgements made, but you can decide for yourself which of the teachers, caregivers, etc. that we learn about really had Nim’s best interests in mind. In many ways, getting to know these people is as important as getting to know Nim himself.

Hopefully, this is the start of another great year for documentaries, as 2010 saw a number of fantastic examples of the genre. “Project Nim” is a stand-out documentary and shoots right to the top of 2011′s class, its subjects sure to create discussion amongst audience members well after the film ends. A 4.5 out of 5, the truly intriguing story is far more worth your time and money than nearly any fictional film out in the marketplace and even if you are particularly sensitive to the treatment of animals, this is a tale so remarkable that feeling that pain might be worth the overall experience.

4.5 out of 5