Interestingly, the first two documentaries I’ve seen at Edinburgh this year have followed very similar plot arcs. Both concern an individual who is feted from an early age for his unusual intellectual abilities. In both films, the subject becomes a media darling before his unpredictable and aggressive behaviour begins to drive his friends away. He becomes a lonely, tragic individual before a late partial redemption, thanks to old friends and supportive well-wishers, allows him to live out his days in a degree of comfort and security. Both tell their stories through a.mix of archive footage and interviews with people who knew and worked with the subject, who is now deceased.
Also, they’re both excellent.
The comparison does fall down in that genius chess player Bobby Fischer- subject of Bobby Fischer Against the World- was brought down by his own paranoia and madness, whereas Nim Chimsky- the primate whose life is explored in Project Nim – was exploited from birth by humans whose motives he could not possibly understand. He was initially part of an experiment to study apes’ potential to learn to communicate like humans, being raised in a family like human baby, and taught sign language. Later, as he became too strong and unpredictable to control, he ended up in an animal experimentation lab.
A number of his teachers clearly feel a degree of guilt for the part they played in Nim’s unnatural life (though the project’s originator might benefit from a little more self awareness). Nim’s essential powerlessness makes his story the more emotionally affecting of the two, but both films are highly recommended.