Filmmaker Marsh follows up the amazing Man on Wire with another thoroughly gripping narrative documentary, this time telling the life story of a chimpanzee that was raised as a human. And as his story twists and turns, the film has a lot to say about humans too.
Born at an Oklahoma primate centre in 1973, Nim was taken from his mother after only a few days and sent to live with the LaFarge family in New York. Headed up by Columbia professor Terrace, the project aimed to test nature versus nurture, and to see if a chimp could communicate with humans using sign language. To better control the study, Nim moved into a more controlled environment with trainers Laura and Bill, who after a few years are horrified when Nim is sent back to Oklahoma to live in a cage for the first time in his life.
And Nim's story takes some more turns. At the primate centre, he finds friendship with the playful hippie Bob. But when money runs out, Nim is sold for medical experiments, an event that sparks a legal case before Nim moves to a farm for rescued horses. Through all of this, there are a handful of people who genuinely care about Nim's wellbeing, and they are powerless to protect him. He died in 2000 from a heart attack.
Hearing these people reminisce, it's clear that Nim made a huge impact on their lives. Some trainers became intensely close with him, both as teachers and playmates, and they never blame him when his violent impulses cause serious injuries. Intriguingly, Nim seemed to know that he was a chimp in a human world, learning quickly how to manipulate people, challenging men he saw as a threat and clearly grappling with his wilder instincts.
Marsh assembles this with a strong sense of Nim's life story, so we are gripped to the events as they happen. Remarkably, we experience much of this through Nim's eyes, even as the film refuses to humanise him. So in the end, the film asks some potent questions without ever moralising. Whether or not it was right for these scientists to study Nim, it's clear that the way we treat animals really needs to change.