From the Oscar-winning team behind MAN ON WIRE comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Following Nim's extraordinary journey through human society, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature - and indeed our own - is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling. Written by
This is a very good and engaging film. I will not reiterate plot as this is available in the other fine reviews, but I have to say I found the documentary both heartening and deeply sad in equal measures.
Firstly, I do agree with the other reviewers comments on futility, I do not, however, agree entirely with Professor Terrace's view that the project was a failure, though conversely I do think the project failed Nim. To expand on this I would say that the conclusion of Terrace's failure seemed to fit a classic narrow set of parameters by which you compare and judge the outcome solely on an initial and highly specific expectation of what you will achieve. To this end perhaps it failed Professor Terrace's criteria.
I think however opportunities were certainly lost. Nim seemed to interact in so many subtle and fascinating ways during the process of his teaching, and he seemed to teach a great deal to all of the assistants who gave him their care. There seemed to be so little structure from the start with regards to what was to be taught and observed and in which direction the project should be going.
The only constant seemed to be the teaching of signing, at which Nim excelled! From what I could see, regardless of whether he learnt the actions to manipulate his handlers or not, he still learnt the signs. Since it was known that the chimp could not form human speech, how was it to communicate what it had learnt and why it was using the language in this way? I found this point frustrating and dubious and an example of one person with their eye so "firmly on the prize", that they miss the importance of the process.
Importantly, everybody who was involved across the duration of the project was given a chance to clearly state the turn of events. Perspectives on this varied widely, as you would expect, as everybody brought a different set of expectations and sensibilities, but it was a mature approach which I think led to the films balanced handling of Nim's story.
All in all I found it a fascinating cautionary tale. Luckily the balance of academic ego versus humanity that twists through this story left me with hope that indeed something had been learnt from the unique life of this Chimpanzee.
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