Best Movies of All Time + Stephanie LaFarge



"The fact that we could share language with an animal seemed very radical at that time."
-- Stephanie LaFarge

Project Nim is a 2011 documentary directed by James Marsh that centers around the life of a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky. After he was taken from his mother's arms only weeks after his birth, Nim was placed into a prolonged experiment called "Project Nim" that was headed by a Columbia University linguistics professor named Herbert 'Herb' Terrace. Herb asked Stephanie LaFarge, one of his graduate students, to take Nim into her family's home in order to raise him as though he were a human. She agreed, and she and her family started to raise Nim and teach him to communicate through sign language. After a while, however, Herb believed that Nim's learning should not take place in such a chaotic environment, so he enlisted the help of several of his students to teach Nim at a solitary mansion that Herb was able to rent. As Nim grew older and larger, his attacks against the teachers became more and more frequent, forcing Herb to end his experiment. He returned Nim to a chimp sanctuary in Oklahoma, but he was soon to a medical testing lab in New York before being rescued by a Texas farm that harbors abused and abandoned animals.

To be brutally honest, I had not heard of this film before doing some in-depth research into the 2011 movies I had happened to miss over the past year. I learned that Project Nim was one of the most critically-acclaimed films of the year, earning a 98% approval rating on, where it received the following critical synopsis:

Equal parts hilarious, poignant, and heartbreaking, Project Nim not only tells a compelling story masterfully, but also raises the flag on the darker side of human nature.
While I can see where most critics would have gotten this idea, I personally can't quite attest to the film's power.

Although the story the film tells is one that is truly heartbreaking, it would prove to be equally powerful no matter the medium. If you read this story in a newspaper article, it just might have the same impact as this particular film. Sure, the images and videos of Nim himself are enough to make you want to fall in love with him, but the way the story is told doesn't really offer a one-sided, "let's-all-love-Nim" bit of storytelling. It tells of his good times: how he learns to sign, how he bonds with his teachers, how he loves to hold cats, etc. But it also tells of his bad times: how he dislikes the men around him, how he "begs" rather than communicates, how he attacks his teachers, etc. While the film goes out of its way to show the loving and cute side of Nim, it works just as well to instill a little bit of fear around this wild animal that the students at Columbia University tried to teach. I'm not sure that's really the image the filmmakers wanted to get across, but it's part of the image that's lasting in my head as I write this review.

One of the biggest make-or-breaks for a documentary is the effectiveness of the people who are interviewed for the film. Most of the interviewees in Project Nim proved to be at least moderately entertaining, and I don't just mean "fun" or "likable," although most of them surely fit that bill as well. When I look at an interviewee in a documentary, I'm looking to see how well they can convey their side of the story and whether they are able to grab and hold my attention. In the past, there have been some movies that just weren't able to do that (see: 2007's What Would Jesus Buy? or 2010's Kimjongilia), but for the most part, these guys did well. Be on the watch for the segments with Bob Ingersoll, a man who seemingly had the most passion and love for Nim during his lifetime.

Overall, Project Nim is a solid, straightforward documentary that tells its story and lets its audience experience it as it moves along. An individual's personal viewpoint towards animals - especially chimpanzees in particular - is going to determine how much they are affected emotionally by this piece. I for one thought that the film inadvertently showed a side of Nim that they may not have wanted to show, and as a result, it lost a little bit of its emotional power. That being said, this is still a great film that's worth giving a watch if you have the time to do so.

Movie Review Summary
Grade: B+
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2011, Bob Ingersoll, doc, Herbert Terrace, James Marsh, movie review, Project Nim, and more:

Relevant to: PROJECT NIM + Stephanie LaFarge