Project Nim screens this Sunday. *Photo supplied
Project Nim screens this Sunday. *Photo supplied

FRIDAY, OCTOBER 21: The latest film project for director James Marsh, whose film Man on Wire won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2008, is Project Nim. The film, which won Marsh the Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, will screen at the Bermuda Documentary Film Festival on Sunday October 23 at 5pm.


Project Nim is an unusual proposition for a film.

We’ve tried to apply some of the principles and techniques of a traditional film biography to the life story of an animal. In the film, we follow an individual chimpanzee through infancy and adolescence to adulthood, all the while witnessing both his emerging behaviour and its impact on the humans who lived around him.

There are many intriguing behavioural overlaps between humans and chimpanzees explored in the film but it’s the differences between the species that really shape Nim’s life with us and determine his unhappy fate. As infant Nim grows up, much of his behaviour seems familiar, often surprisingly and amusingly so. He laughs, he cries, he craves attention and affection; he is a thrill seeker and a hedonist with a penchant for illegal drugs.

He has an extraordinary memory and never forgets anyone he meets. He can be empathetic, affectionate and mischievous.

But from very early on, his own unique nature also asserts itself. His first “mother,” Stephanie LaFarge, is quite shocked by “the wild animal in him” and this continues to emerge powerfully as he grows. If you lack confidence in his presence, look at him the wrong way, or otherwise diss him, he will attack and hurt you.

Having made his point, he’ll probably apologise and try to make it up to you.

The paradox and heartbreak for the humans around Nim is that he can scratch and bite people whom he seems genuinely to like. The heartbreak for Nim is that he cannot be any other way and, as he gets stronger, this will guarantee his virtual imprisonment.

As the research veterinarian, James Mahoney, later observes in the film: “Once you put them in a cage, it’s all downhill from then on…” It’s important to recognise that Nim’s life was never natural in any of its circumstances. He was always under our control and captivity is a very unnatural environment for any animal. So the story of Nim can’t help but bump into some profound questions...its higher objective was to discover what is going on inside a chimp’s mind and how he sees the world.