In his latest documentary, Project Nim, Academy Award-winning director James Marsh traces the extraordinary journey of a chimpanzee raised as a human. The project was the brainchild of Columbia University professor Herbert Terrance, who named the chimp Nim Chimpsky (a playful take on linguist and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky) in 1973. The idea was to raise a chimpanzee in a human environment and teach it to communicate in sign language.
But the study was flawed from the beginning. Terrance took Nim from his mother as an infant and handed him over to his hippie ex-girlfriend Stephanie and her family. There the chimp was subjected to pot and alcohol and the freewheeling spirit of the '70s. Terrance eventually took Nim from Stephanie's home and left him in the care of a colleague, Laura. That complicated the study further.
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To this day, the validity of the project is questioned. Much like in Marsh's highly entertaining 2010 Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire, Marsh skillfully blends archival footage and reenactments to tell an engrossing story. But where the earlier film provided inspiration, Project Nim is less apologetic, more controversial, but no less riveting.