Project Nim (2011)

Project Nim (2011) – This a powerful movie but don’t watch it unless you are ready to have your heart ripped out and thrown against the wall. Holy shit… Imagine all the saddest parts of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and don’t lie, you know that movie made your eyes tear up) but without the satisfaction of watching the apes overthrow humanity. This is the real world of animal cruelty, and sadly in real life the apes don’t get to electrocute Draco Malfoy… Project Nim is a harrowing documentary from James Marsh, the director of the brilliant Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire. While that movie actually was inspiring, Nim makes you horribly aware of the awful things that happen in the world.

Due to the evolutionary similarity between humans and chimpanzees, there has long been much speculation about a chimp’s capacity for language. So when Nim (full name: Nim Chimpsky… because scientists have weird senses of humor) is born in an ape shelter and immediately taken away from his mother and put into this study, led by linguist Herbert Terrace. By the end of the movie you will want to find Terrace and punch him right in the throat. Actually, I take that back; it will NOT take you to the end of the movie. Dr. Terrace, “Herb” as everyone calls him, believes that raising Nim in an ordinary human family should facilitate the chimp’s linguistic development. Is this plausible? Who knows? Maybe we would know if he’d found an ORDINARY human family and not pawned the chimp off an a former lover/grad student Stephanie LaFarge whose interest in Nim appears… “unhealthy” seems like a good word.

Anyway LaFarge isn’t left in charge of the project forever, and many of the other research assistants (predominantly attractive young women, at least one of whom Herb admits to banging) seem to have a better idea on how to teach and interact with Nim. The problem is that as Nim grows older, he becomes more aggressive as chimps are wont to do. There is a major problem of anthropomorphization throughout the movie. Many people see Nim as a person. He is not. He is a chimp and you can’t treat him as if he were a person. Then there’s some people *COUGH*Herb*COUGH* he seems to have the opposite problem, barely seeing Nim as a sentient creature at all. Actually let me just trash Herb some more, because oh my God do I hate that motherfucker… The man is a fame whore, plain and simple. His research assistants talk about his minimal involvement in the project and how he would just show up when it was time to do some publicity about the project. Then of course there’s the callous way he just decides to end the project and return Nim to the ape shelter after being among humans his whole life.

Unsurprisingly, Nim does not easily integrate into ape society. The saving grace of the movie is that this is where Nim meets Bob Ingersoll, the one good person in this whole damn movie. Okay, maybe that’s pushing it, but the man seems like a saint. He has Nim’s best interests at heart. There are actually quite a few people who only want what’s best for Nim (like Stephanie LaFarge) but have no fucking clue what that entails. Sadly Nim’s journey takes him away from Bob to an animal testing facility, but thanks largely to Bob raising a stink in the media he is rescued by author and animal rights activist Cleveland Amory. Unfortunately despite his good intentions and a great record of rescuing abused animals, Amory’s Black Beauty Ranch is not set up to handle a chimp. I will say that (again, thanks to Bob), Nim does get a reasonably happy ending, but it’s hard to believe that atones for all the suffering the poor animal endured at the hands of people.

Of course this raises the larger issue of animal cruelty in general. Why is Nim special? Because he can sign and wore human clothes when he was younger? What about the chimps who weren’t rescued from the animal testing lab? I’m not really a PETA-person (though those naked protests sound like they might be fun). I wear a leather jacket and I eat meat and don’t really intend on stopping either (I do, however, refrain from buying shampoos/conditioners/etc. that have been tested on animals). However, needless cruelty bothers me. You can make an argument for a lot of things, but cruelty is not one. Watching this movie it is hard to argue anything except needless cruelty happened here. I don’t often cry at movies but I was in tears at several points during this one. It’s intense, but if you can take it Project Nim is a powerful viewing experience.

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