In the ’60s and ’70s, there was a romance between humans and simians, one that could be glimpsed in a variety of phenomena like Planet of the Apes, the nonfiction best-seller The Naked Ape, and the celebrification of Jane Goodall. Project Nim, a fascinating and in many ways tragic documentary, takes us back to one of the high-water marks of the apes-are-people-too era. It’s about the famed experiment, begun in 1973, in which a chimp named Nim Chimpsky was taken from his mother and raised like a ”normal” human child in a brownstone on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Hanging out and learning sign language, Nim seemed happy and almost human. The director, James Marsh (Man on Wire), edits old photos and 16mm footage of Nim’s life into a comedy of displacement: At times, we could be watching one of the more exotic chapters of An American Family. But then Nim begins to lash out at his ”parents” and trainers (most of whom are interviewed here). Before long, it becomes apparent that Herbert Terrace, the Columbia psychology professor who masterminded the project, didn’t plan out his experiment with much compassion or care. As Nim is shuttled to a new home with new researchers, then an animal experimentation facility, Project Nim turns unbearably sad. It shows you why the ape/human romance, vibrant as it seemed, was also doomed. B+