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Nature vs. nurture – A chimpanzee named Nim is taken from his mother at birth to be raised like a human child in the 1970s. He is then taught sign language by a family living in the upper West Side of New York. Shortly after, Nim is abruptly taken away from his first ‘home’ to begin more thorough, scientific research. But as he grows older, his strength and temper become too dangerous, causing him to be passed on many times to different teachers and ultimately, he arrives at some very dark places. Project Nim (2011) takes us through a heartbreaking journey that reveals the consequences of using such intelligent, sensitive creatures for our own self-serving purposes.
Why this doc is worth watching: Not only does the film arouse great compassion and concern through focusing on the plight of an individual character, but the information provided allows us to understand and appreciate the intelligence and emotionally-sensitive nature of a chimpanzee – from a relatable perspective of the victim. There is hope, but to know if that hope comes through our increased awareness of the devastating impact that captive breeding facilities have on primates – or to find out if there is hope in the end for Nim himself, we cannot walk away from such a poignant ‘encounter’ without being greatly altered in spirit. Such a film inspires a soulful heightening of our capacity to emotionally bond with those beyond our own genetic range – as ‘kindred’ spirits. Documentaries like Project Nim are not intended to dismay or disempower. They are intended to sensitize, not desensitize, and indeed, if we can come away from such films with merely an enhanced appreciation of the need for respect and sensitivity toward all creatures, then the viewing is well worth it.
Director: James Marsh
Memorable quote: “We made a commitment to him and we failed. We did a huge disservice to that soul”.
Chimps – they’re just like us: “He loved driving fast in cars. He loved motorcycles – virtually anything thrilling. He liked alcohol. You’d give him a sip and he’d want more. We gave him puffs on joints. We didn’t have to treat him like a child. We could expose him to the sensations that we enjoyed”.
From the time Nim was born, he was used as an experiment – first to see if he could learn sign language, and then to be ‘poked and prodded’. He was virtually abandoned by almost everyone who took care of him and who he saw as his family – which produced a tortured soul, just as any human would respond under similar, abusive circumstances. Nim proves how truly human-like he is in revealing a feeling of extreme betrayal through an emotionally-charged response when his first human ‘mother’ comes to visit him years after she was forced to give him away to an uncompassionate researcher.
Heartbreaking moment: After one too many violent outbursts, Nim is brought back to the primate breeding colony where he was first taken from his mother – which is, for a chimp who was brought up like a child, a virtual ‘hell on earth’. Chimps here are kept in tiny locked cages, with chains around their necks, electric fences surround the facility and they are zapped with electric rods for “bad behaviour”.
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