Roger Ebert neatly summarises:-
Can a chimpanzee learn to speak by using sign language? Yes. But in what sense does it know what it is saying? “Project Nim,” a fascinating documentary, follows the life of a chimp named Nim Chimpsky as it’s raised like a human baby and then shuttled from one set of “parents” and “homes” to another. The chimp emerges from this experience as a more admirable creature than many of its humans.
I could add that there is also a touch of the heroic in one or two of the human protagonists, but what I really want to say is that this documentary encourages more subtle assessments of its interviewees.
Simon Chinn, Producer (DVD extras)
Somehow in a documentary by being able to see the whites of someone’s eyes you can convey a complexity in people’s emotion that I think is often very difficult to achieve in a fictional form. What are his tears, what do they mean? Can you explain them? They are not reducible to one easy explanation, they are complicated tears.
James Marsh (DVD extras)
The story itself embodies some very interesting ideas but there is no simple moral conclusion. The questions which the film poses are really for the viewer to resolve. What I’ve tried to do is to tell the story as well as I can without distilling the film into some sound-bite morality, some easy comforting moral.
That last quote characterises some of the very best documentaries. This one certainly poses some very interesting questions.
Rob Nelson in The Village Voice:-
Marsh’s film remains a deeply haunting portrait of the unbridgeable gap between kindred species. Nim learns to communicate in sign language (he particularly likes the words “play” and “hug”), but declines—heroically, perhaps—to supply scientific proof that an ape can live comfortably among people who often appear far less intelligent than he is. Naturally, this seals the animal’s fate. And Project Nim guarantees that we’ll never look at zoos—or our pets—the same way again.
As a companion film to Nim, I would highly recommend Nicolas Philibert’s brilliant, meditative documentary Nenette. Philip French in The Guardian:-
It’s an absorbing, contemplative film that compels us to participate rather than just sit back and look. Centrally, we’re invited to speculate as to what Nénette [an orang-utan in a Paris zoo] is thinking, what she makes of us and to ask ourselves what right we have to imprison her and what rights she herself possesses.