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SUNDANCE: 'Project Nim' Broaches Big Issues on Opening Night

James Marsh's new documentary has its world premiere with many of the film's subjects on hand.

Sundance Film Festival - 2011 - Project Nim
BBC Films

PARK CITY -- James Marsh (Man on Wire) screened his new documentary Project Nim as part of Sundance Film Festival's opening night Thursday. Along with Marsh and his producing partner Simon Chinn, many of the film's subjects were on hand to see the movie for the first time and grapple with its themes and resonance thirty years after the strange events depicted in the film.

All in all, it made for an especially deep experience for filmmakers and viewers alike.

The film uses incredible archive footage and present-day interviews with a roster of humans that played a part in the life of a chimpanzee named Nim. Taken from his mother right after his birth in 1973, Nim spent several years being raised by a family of nine in New York as part of an experiment on sign language and the "capacity for higher consciousness" before changing hands several times -- often traumatically -- over the next 26 years.

Throughout, the story grapples with nature vs. nurture, but most interestingly it shows us just as starkly the jealousies, desires, misguided intentions and passions of the humans that play a part in Nim's life. It's ultimately a sad movie, and once the film ended and five of the subjects went on stage to answer questions it became exceedingly clear just how deeply the experience had changed them and focused the ambitions of the rest of their lives.

The first mother, Stephanie Lefarge, went on to work to explore "communication across barriers," with dying children and drug addicts, before moving on to work as a psychiatrist for the ASPCA on grief issues. She claims she's "still grieving for Nim 25 years later." 

Lefarge's daughter Jenny went on to become a landscape architect who helped design habitats at the Bronx Zoo. In college, she considered taking a van-load of friends to break Nim out of captivity.

Laura, one of Nim's early language teachers, went on to study the brain tissue in humans that interprets the meaning in words. Another, Joyce, became a special ed teacher who has never stopped "fighting for those who can't advocate for themselves."

And Bob, who befriended Nim and fought for his safety and care for decades, now rescues monkeys full time for a reserve in Oklahoma.

The last line of the film is: "They forgive you." Seeing how shaken the primary players who nurtured and shaped Nim still are, that statement comes across as less a certainty than an ongoing hope.