Title: Project Nim
Directed By: James Marsh
Starring: Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Jenny Lee, Laura-Ann Petitto, Joyce Butler, Bill Tynan, Renee Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, James Mahoney
Documentaries and narrative films are wildly different mediums, but they both require many of the same assets, specifically proper pacing and engaging storytelling methods. As many of you have come to learn, I’m not a documentary fan. Many drown in talking heads, lack the necessary non-interview elements to really bring the story to life and are set to somber tones that ultimately become monotonous. Okay, that sounds like a terrible generalization, but how many documentaries have you seen that really have the power to keep you entertained all the way through as a narrative can? My number may be small, but today it grows by one. Not only is Project Nim an entirely worthwhile film, even for those who share my sentiment of documentaries, but it’s a grade-A piece period.
On November 19th, 1973, Nim is born and just days later, ripped from his mother’s arms to became the focal point of Professor Herbert Terrace’s Project Nim, an experiment geared towards proving that a chimpanzee is capable of communicating using sign language. While this is only the beginning of Nim’s story, Marsh provides an excellent sense of what’s to come; a piece able to generate the quintessential “Isn’t he cute?” reaction, but also rip your heart right out of your chest. But first, we get one of the sweeter portions of the film.
The initial phase of the experiment lands Nim in the home of a loving Manhattan mother, Stephanie LaFarge. Nim is essentially a human baby, getting all the attention he wants and doing whatever he pleases. The family photos and home video footage are undeniably amusing and also show how much Nim really becomes part of the family. Similar to his birth mother, Nim is eventually snatched away from Lafarge for the sake of scientific research. Just like the segment before, it’s a vicious turnaround from the nice and sweet to the seemingly unfair and cruel.
At this point, the range of emotions is already extraordinary. While we’ve come to accept Nim as being part of the LaFarge family and can’t bear to see him taken away, at the same time, there’s the understanding that it’s for the sake of the experiment. So it’s onto the portion of the piece that shows Nim in the Delafield estate in Riverdale. Marsh fills the void left by LaFarge with equally loving teachers working at and living on the estate with Nim. The amount of information and emotion Marsh extracts from these teachers during their interviews is extraordinary. It never feels as though any of them are talking to a camera, rather directly to you, personally. Their retellings are so genuinely honest and powerful you can practically feel what they went through raising and teaching Nim.
This is the general cycle of most of the film. Nim gets a home and grows to love his company only be to torn away for logistical reasons. While the aforementioned sections of the cycle have satisfying resolutions, it’s through the subsequent ones that Marsh presents how truly inhumane this experiment is and he lays it on thick. It’s quite incredible how easy it is to relate to Nim’s brutal shift from human life back to his birthplace, a primate research center, where he’s forced to adapt to living with his own kind. Picture yourself forced to go to a packed party not knowing a sole; that’s the feeling this portion of the film evokes, but worse. It’s an incredibly lonely and rather scary sentiment and suspecting Nim is suffering with that same sensation, but worse, is downright painful.
You think that sounds bad? Wait until later portions of the film when things really do go drastically downhill. While it’s quite troubling to hear about the story of Nim from a friend or even to read about him in a book, it’s quite disturbing to experience visually. On the other hand, Project Nim wasn’t all bad. Terrace and his team all had noble intentions and ultimately, everyone involved really only wanted the best for Nim. The paradox between intentions and how the experiment actually played out is what makes this film so incredible and it’s quite clear that Marsh not only recognized this, but kept it in mind throughout the entire filmmaking process.
Marsh and his team not only assembled all of the necessary facts to make the documentary, but they also took the time to consider storytelling methods. Yes, Project Nim has quite a few talking heads, but they’re of top-notch quality. There’s such an incredible amount of cutaways from old footage, photos and some reenactments that Marsh is able to use his interviews only when necessary and in the most appropriate manner possible. Then again, had Marsh opted to keep his interview subjects on screen longer, the film likely would have been just as successful. Either Marsh is quite talented when it comes to extracting information or he was blessed with the best of the best in terms of interviewees because the Project Nim interviews are exceedingly touching. Everyone has a strong story to tell and does so so earnestly it makes the piece all the more powerful. Rather than come across as mere interview subjects, everyone from Lafarge to Bob Ingersoll, one of Nim’s last good friends, really feels like a living, breathing person. The choice to shoot these interviews in a proper studio environment as opposed to personal homes or offices keeps the attention on the story these individuals are telling, giving the viewer no choice but to be fully focused and engaged. Even Marsh’s decision to pan left or right, “wiping” out the subject at the end of his or her portion of Nim’s story packs an impressively emotional punch.
Project Nim is really just documentary filmmaking at its best. Regardless of subject matter, it’s quite clear that Marsh and his team have an incredible handle on the medium and know exactly how to bring a non-narrative film to life in the best way possible. Project Nim is a must-see not only for the crucial tale it tells, but also as a wildly enjoyable, passionate and poignant piece of cinema.
Acting (Interviewees): A
By Perri Nemiroff