IN 1973, a family of wealthy New York hippies bought a baby chimpanzee, named it Nim and set about rearing it as if it were human. None of the family had any knowledge of primate behaviour.
To tell Nim’s story, documentarist James Marsh uses archival footage, interviews with the humans who played roles of varying importance in Nim’s life and some staging to fill in gaps between story and resources available for telling it.
The experiment was doomed to fail once Nim stopped being a cute juvenile. The family and their voluntary assistants ignored the signals.
Academics with different mind sets and attitudes toward keeping animals for scientific experimentation came into the act.
Sequences showing how universities treated their chimpanzees will distress people of compassion.
Nim never knew life in the wild. His life, until dying of a heart attack, aged 26 must have confused him mightily.
Marsh pulls no punches in telling this story. Its emotional profile begins entertaining before progressing steadily toward bleak. That’s why it’s worth seeing. Happy endings are not obligatory.