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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 story is about a project in the 1970's that was intended to discover if it was possible to bring up a chimpanzee like a human being. The chimp, Nim, lived in a house, wore clothes and developed a sign language that could identify many things. It's a story that is simultaneously fascinating and terribly sad. Snatched from his mother just after birth he was taken under the wing of a family of rich hippies who had no actual knowledge of primate behaviour. From this early stage it is evident that the chimp displays very specific primate behaviour where he acts aggressively and belligerently to the father figure, in a way that reflects chimp behaviour in the wild where the males need to assert domination over other males from an early stage. Nim proves too much for these misguided people to deal with and from here he is passed via a number of primate specialists until he horrifically winds up in an animal testing centre, and finally in a ranch for mistreated animals, although even here Nim lived for a period in complete isolation but thankfully ended up with mates in his final years.
The very idea of a chimp being brought up in human society is a fascinating one. But it quickly becomes apparent that this experiment is doomed to failure. There is a very good reason that you do not see people keep chimpanzees as pets – they can be extremely aggressive and powerful animals. On numerous occasions carers were bitten and maimed. One woman had a hole ripped in the side of her face while another had her head repeatedly beaten off the pavement by the ape. But the over-riding feeling engendered by the documentary is one of sadness. This poor creature is let down by those who took him from his mother and decided to rear him as a human. It seems to me quite outrageous that an animal taught to communicate with people and live in a house should ever have been sent to an animal experiment centre. The blame must surely be primarily put on Professor Herbert Terrace whose project it was. Once Nim was sent to a chimp reserve he seemingly lost interest and made absolutely no attempt to save him from what could have quite easily have been an awful fate. So thank heavens for Bob Ingersoll the man who looked after Nim in the reserve and never gave up on him. Bob ultimately saved him through perseverance and considerable effort. He emerges as the human hero of the film, although the other carers from New York such as Laura and the young couple who followed her also cared deeply for the animal too, the latter two still seemed genuinely pained by how Nim was ultimately treated.
The essential message of the film is that you should not try to transport a wild animal into human society and not expect repercussions. Some of the people in the film are just guilty of naivety, dangerous as it was. As much as a story about a remarkable primate, it's a story about human stupidity, human callousness and – thanks to Bob Ingersoll – human kindness. It's overall a remarkable documentary.
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