Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with my thoughts on the big opening night documentary Project Nim.
HBO has already picked this up, so you folks with cable will be able to give this flick a view sometime this year. And you should. From the team behind the great doc MAN ON WIRE have turned in a heartbreaking, deeply involving look at an experiment to see if a chimp brought up exclusively by humans could essentially provide the first real communication between man and animal.
At the start of the doc I wasn’t sure how much I was going to like this flick, to be honest. The subject matter was fine, but the beginning of the film is front-loaded with re-enactments. Dramatization is my number one documentary pet peeve. They only make me think of cheap TV hour-long murder stories.
There’s no real acting to be offended by (re-enactments typically have worse acting than an Asylum flick directed by Uwe Boll) in the dramatizations here, just long steady, cinematic shots to put the right framework in place. Once they do, the filmmakers very rarely go back to them, so I was able to shake that off and just focus on the story, which is fascinating.
You basically have two main characters: Professor Herb Terrace and Nim, the chimp. There are a lot of big players in Nim’s story, but those are the only two constants. And boy is Herb Terrace portrayed as a sonuvabitch. With his sleazy persona, mustache and terrible comb-over Herb quickly becomes the best real life documentary scumbag this side of Billy Mitchell.
Terrace initiates this project, taking the 2 week old Nim away from his mother and giving the baby to an ex-lover, a Hippie lady that was more interested in raising the chimp as one of her own (even breast feeding the baby chimp) than teaching it sign language.
While it might not have been good for the project, Nim seemed entirely happy here, but Terrace wanted more results… and also wanted to fuck the 19 year old research student who was brought in to pick up Nim’s sign language tutorial.
I’m serious, this doc has the head of LEMSIP (Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery In Primates) and still Terrace comes across as the biggest monster. Terrace creates this being who can’t really relate to chimps, becomes too strong and dangerous for humans and only seems to care about the publicity it gains him.
And the dude is front and center here, talking with the documentarians. Just like Billy Mitchell he seems almost proud of his douchiness and totally unaware the real harm he’s done to his research assistants, partners and to Nim himself.
This isn’t a happy story, even if it starts off as one, which makes the final act all the more heartbreaking. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of letting the audience get to know Nim’s personality. We see the soul of this animal as he communicates with his friends, we learn of his vices (he’s fond of beer and weed), we learn of his anger and compassion. We see this personality develop over a few years as he bonds with more and more people, gains a bigger vocabulary and then we see all that taken away when Herb not only decides to end the project (in possibly his most justified action, considering this follows a particularly brutal bite Nim gives one of his teachers) and abandons him at the place of his birth: a dirty cage, surrounded by screaming chimps.
I won’t go into more detail on the plot, but the critic’s cliché of “it made me laugh, it made me cry” is totally applicable to this film. You’ll meet some heroes, including an aging hippie who is perhaps Nim’s best friend, you’ll meet some villains and you’ll see a lot of the people who knew and loved this extraordinary animal.
You gotta give a lot of credit to a documentary that can personally involve you. There aren’t many, but Project Nim definitely deserves a place alongside docs like Dear Zachary and the Paradise Lost series. All those films make me furious, showcase true monsters among us, but also somehow leave me a little bit of hope that for every bastard in the world there are an equal number of incredible, selfless people. Sometimes the story doesn’t have a happy ending, but the journey shows the best of us.
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