James Marsh's "Project Nim" centers on a '70s experiment that studied the human qualities of a chimpanzee, adorably named Nim Chimpsky. But the documentary's greatest strength is proving what this experiment couldn't: That the soul of an animal can burn bright. And in Nim's case, it can burn brighter than his human companions.
Columbia professor Herb Terrace set out to learn about the inner workings of Nim by teaching him sign language. Plucked from an Oklahoma reserve in 1973, Nim was placed in the home of one of Terrace's grad students, Stephanie LaFarge, who acted as a surrogate mother to the chimp. She treated him like one of her own children, even allowing him to breast-feed, take hits off a joint and drink alcohol. Stephanie's daughter, Jenny Lee, recalls how nonchalantly Nim was added to their family. "'Oh, we're having a chimp,'" she says. Laughing, she adds, "It was the '70s."
But Terrace is unhappy with the scientific progress being made and hires another student, Laura-Ann Petitto, to teach Nim to sign. Each day, she logs new words that Nim has learned. The resentful relationship between LaFarge and Petitto is spurred by the desire of each to be Nim's primary surrogate mother. Their philosophy of motherhood is completely different and their anger is palatable decades later.
These women are fighting over a chimp, not a human child. But that's what makes "Project Nim" so utterly fascinating, because this chimp touched the lives of its humans in unfathomable ways. Remembering how Nim was taken from LaFarge's home for a more controlled scientific environment, daughter Jenny Lee begins to cry.
Tears are common in "Project Nim." Many grow weepy when speaking about Nim and as the documentary progresses, Marsh's structure and interview style justifies these outpourings of emotion.
As Nim matures, his strength becomes uncontrollable and he experiences violent turns. Yet he is not the villain. That would be Terrace, portrayed as a cold fame-monger who rarely spent time with Nim while people like Petitto and LaFarge were devoted to the chimp. "We did a huge disservice to him and his soul, and shame on us," says Joyce Butler, one of Nim's sign teachers.
Marsh, who directed the gorgeous "Man On Wire," is subtle with his agitprop. As Nim's story turns from scientifically compelling to tragic, Marsh is able to craft a drama that appeals even to those who aren't exactly card-carrying members of PETA.