Project Nim

Posted on January 31, 2011


For the last 30 years scriptwriters, directors, actors and anyone interested in creating original independent film projects have headed to Park City in Utah, America, for the Sundance Film Festival in January.

courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Sundance Film Festival 1981

It’s an event considered by some in the industry as one of the best platforms to showcase American and international film. Throughout its history it has introduced audiences to a spectrum of genres and been responsible for releasing some quite niche subjects to mainstream cinema-goers.

President and founder of the festival Robert Redford says: “Storytellers broaden our minds: engage, provoke, inspire, and ultimately, connect us.”

I would have to agree, it’s one medium where I feel I can truly lose myself for a couple of hours. My regular cinema-buddy is Luton Boy, and we try to go every other week together. If not, then we swap our thoughts on films we’ve seen during weekday matinees on our own.

Wildlife docos fascinate me, especially ones spliced with amateur footage. Among my favourites is Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog. It follows (the somewhat bonkers) Timothy Treadwell and his fascination for Grizzly bears. The doco contains a lot of Treadwell’s original footage in Alaska, interviews with friends and pieces together his horrific death by a bear. Grizzly Man premiered at Sundance in 2005.

This year’s Sundance doco that’s on my must-see list  is Project Nim. It’s about a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky, who is wrenched from his mother’s arms as an infant; taken by a scientist to be reared like a human child, isolated from his own species and forced to learn sign language. Apparently this story is not for the faint-hearted.

Project Nim, featuring Nim

Directed by Brit, James Marsh, it follows Nim’s life, who became a research subject for Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace in the early 1970s.








Professor Terrace, a behavioural psychologist, believed that language is learnt, and intended to prove that chimpanzees could learn it, disproving the theory of Noam Chomsky. Hence the play on the words for the chimp’s name. Chomsky, was a linguist well-known for arguing that there is a universal grammar native to the human brain and therefore exclusive to humans.

Nim was first placed with his former student and lover to raise as part of her own family; but like a lot of fostered children Nim becomes a product of a broken home, shuttled from caregiver to caregiver until he is all but abandoned.

The film arrived at Sundance with rights already  secured by HBO, but during last week it was announced it would be theatrically distributed in partnership with Roadside Attractions, who released last year’s Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove. If you haven’t seen The Cove, it is a must!! Truly inspiring and moving doco about the campaign to stop dolphins being slaughtered in Taiji in Japan.

In 2008 Marsh directed Man on Wire, a documentary recounting Phillippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. He won an Oscar for it.

I have to say I’m intrigued to see what he does with Project Nim; after all his hero this time couldn’t be more different.

Marsh said: “I don’t have a dog or a cat or anything like that or a goldfish to be nice to. But I do feel the film hopefully will suggest a different response from us to animals than we have now.”

Marsh says there is a curious interface between two intelligent species (the chimp and us) trying to find out about each other. It is as much about a study of human nature as much as a chimpanzee’s capacity for language and learning.

Marsh added: “My view of them has changed particularly with regard to their intelligence and dare I say it, their sensibilities. Higher primates clearly feel things in the same way we feel things and when you realise there are thousands upon thousands of higher primates locked up in facilities all over the world, rotting away; it seems a tragedy for those species to be so close to us they almost suffer by being our nearest relative in the animal kingdom.”

One of the former researchers interviewed for the documentary reinforces this idea. Her decision to quit the project reflects how the poorly Nim was treated. She said: “It was the humans I had to leave, not the chimp.”

The release date for Project Nim is yet to be confirmed.

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