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Sundance 2011: 'Project Nim' explores human nature (and chimps too)

January 28, 2011 | 12:00 pm


Having played as one of the opening night selections at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Project Nim" is a rare movie that has maintained momentum even as other titles have captured buzz and faded away. Seemingly among the most universally liked films at the festival, one would be hard pressed to find someone to say a bad word about it -- and at Sundance there usually is always a differing opinion.

The film entered the fest with rights already having been secured by HBO, but during the week it was announced the film would be theatrically distributed in partnership with Roadside Attractions, who released last year's Oscar-winning doc, "The Cove." "Nim" played to an enthusiastic overflow audience on Friday afternoon and as the festival heads into its final days the film seems in a strong place to win the World Documentary competition and/or an audience award.

Made by the team of directors James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn, who won an Oscar for "Man on Wire," "Project Nim" tells the story of a chimpanzee named Nim, who became a research subject for Columbia University professor Herb Terrace in the early 1970s. Placing Nim at first with his former student and onetime lover to raise as part of her own family, Terrace sets off a wild series of events. In a sense Nim becomes the product of a broken home, shuttled from caregiver to caregiver until he is all but abandoned.

A study of human nature as much as a chimpanzee's capacity for language and learning, "Project Nim" says a lot about the relationship between humans and the natural world. People who would consider themselves civilized intellectuals still have a capacity for thoughtlessness and needless cruelty, but also compassion, redemption and forgiveness. As one of the former researchers says of her decision to quit the project, "It was the humans I had to leave, not the chimp."

-- Mark Olsen in Park City, Utah

Scene from "Project Nim" courtesy Sundance Film Festival

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