Project Nim

DOCUMENTARY; 1hr 33min

DIRECTED BY: James Marsh

Pet project: Nim

In 1973, a baby chimpanzee is rehoused in a New York City brownstone, to be taught sign language and generally raised as a human by a family of rich hippies. Stubborn, bright and irresistible, Nim is a literally a force of nature in this progressively distressing documentary from director James Marsh (Man on Wire). He loves fast cars and puffing on a joint — not exactly the scientific model that Columbia University eggheads had in mind. Before long, the eggheads and the brownstone brood are clashing over discipline vs free love, and in 1975 Nim is moved to a woodsy estate where his socialisation progresses in leaps and bounds. And then it all comes crashing down.


Using archival footage, interviews with those involved and some actors, Marsh reconstructs Nim’s revelatory and shameful history as per Elizabeth Hess’s 2008 biography Nim Chimpsky. His account raises two questions: how can you rear an animal that could badly injure or kill you, and how can you abandon that animal when your pet “Project” is over? As a statement of folly and unwitting, extreme cruelty, the answers are all kinds of heartache.