| British filmmaker James Marsh's follow-up to his Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire" is a fascinating curiosity piece based on the book "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human" by Elizabeth Hess. Hess served as a consultant for the movie.
The captivating story begins with the birth of a male chimpanzee named Nim in November of 1973 at the Oklahoma-based Institute for Primate Studies. Nim was taken from his mother Carolyn a few weeks later by Professor Herbert Terrace of Columbia University. Nim became the subject of a radical experiment to determine whether apes can be taught to communicate their thoughts and feelings through sign language.
Nim was raised as a human child in a brownstone on New York's Upper West Side by Stephanie LaFarge, a former behavioral psychology student who had a previous sexual relationship with Terrace. This living arrangement added to a complicated domestic situation, because LaFarge had three children and was married to rich writer-poet with four kids of his own.
The project lasted 3½ years and was deemed a failure. Terrace described Nim as a "brilliant beggar." Several clueless teachers developed varying degrees of attachment with Nim. These somewhat loving and intimate interactions are only half of the story. The movie turns heartbreaking when Nim is returned to the primate colony in Oklahoma.
Nim's harrowing journey through life spans more than a quarter-century. Marsh tells this morally complex story of unexpected twists and turns through a mixture of interviews, archival footage, graphics and dramatic recreations. Some of the interviewees are actors rather than the real individuals. A neat trick employed by Marsh is to have the camera pan away from the seated interviewees when they no longer are a part of Nim's life.
Nim was exploited right from the beginning. He then suffered unique forms of animal cruelty through separation anxiety, abandonment and mistreatment. While watching this engrossing documentary, you may find it hard to believe that it really did happen.
Big issues explored include nature vs. nurture and heredity vs. environment. The individuals whose paths crossed with Nim are an interesting bunch with narcissistic tendencies, emotional baggage and personality shortcomings.
This non-fiction animal biography deserves recognition for a brilliant editing job in condensing the running time to 93 minutes. It won the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival. Kansas City audiences get the chance to experience Nim's earthly existence exclusively at the Glenwood Arts for a limited engagement.
Keith Cohen "The Movie Guy"