Director James Marsh wowed critics and audiences and scored an Academy Award for his marvelous 2008 documentary Man on Wire (Marsh went on to direct one of the Red Riding films). That’s why I was psyched to learn that his newest documentary, Project Nim, would be opening the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Project Nim, which centers on one researcher’s attempt to teach a chimp English using sign language, has already been scooped up by HBO, and it is very likely you’ll get to see this movie at some point this year.

So how is Marsh’s follow-up to Man on Wire? Hit the jump to find out.

Project Nim chronicles the case of Nim Chimsky (a pun on Chomsky), a chimpanzee born in 1973 who was raised like a human. Under the supervision of Columbia University professor Herb Terrace (and I use “supervision” loosely), researchers try to teach Nim English using sign language. First, Terrace installs Nim in a hippie commune, where he’s allowed to run wild and unrestrained. After that does not prove as effective as hoped, Nim is subjected to what feels like an endless series of changing environments and teachers. While the film is concerned with the question of whether or not Nim successfully learned how to communicate using sign language, it is more interested in how Nim is treated and what that says about his caretakers.

Marsh has impressively amassed a voluminous amount of archival material, including video and photographs, many of which gorgeously illustrate the individuals and key moments in the film. He shoots his talking heads all in the same, professionally-lit style, which allows the emotions (or lack thereof) of each individual to emerge unfettered. The result is a heartbreaking portrait of a chimp whose life was never his own. And while that last sentence might sound a bit silly, if anything, this film will instill a renewed appreciation for the psychological life and capacity of animals.

I don’t know that Nim ever reaches the heights of Man on Wire. I was so taken in by the energy and singular focus of the latter, and I found its final moments to be transcendent and unforgettable. But this is obviously a completely different film with an altogether different focus. There are moments of absolute magic in Project Nim, and most of them involve Nim himself: his “conversations” with humans, his strange habits and mannerisms, his inherently adorable nature in his youth. When you see Nim sign and interact with people, you will believe we are living in the future (or the prequel for Planet of the Apes. Or the movie Congo). And watching the film will force you to ask those Big Questions: What is the nature of language? Is it ever proper for animals and humans to mix in this fashion? What are the responsibilities of scientists and researchers when working with animals?

Terrace, the Columbia researcher, is perhaps the film’s most fascinating character, in that the film portrays him in a near-sociopathic light. He gets sexually involved with the females he hires (to the detriment of his experiment), expresses little to no remorse over the lives he’s negatively affected, and seems to have no compassion for Nim himself. He is a chilling reminder of one of the most memorable film clichés: in a film about animals and humans, sometimes it is difficult to tell which one is which.

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