Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: James Marsh.
Oscar winning British film maker James Marsh follows up his documentary Man On Wire which chronicled the efforts of French high wire walker to cross between the two towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974, with the moving and provocative Project Nim.
The film looks at Nim, a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother and raised as part of a university research project trying to teach him how to communicate via sign language. In 1973, Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace embarked on an experiment to try to find out if a chimpanzee could learn to communicate with humans. A part of the experiment was designed to test the nature versus nurture theory. Thus Nim was raised as part of the large family of Stephanie LaFarge in their brownstone house on the upper West Side in the 1970s, and treated like any other child.
LaFarge was the former assistant to the unsympathetic and sleazy Terrace, who was in charge of the project, but she had no real scientific training in how to raise a monkey. Nim ate pizza, smoked joints, drank beer, wore clothes, learned how to use a toilet, and was even breast fed for some time. LaFarge’s unorthodox approach and slack parenting caused many problems. As a young chimp some of his antics are indeed quite cute.
But as anyone who has seen the recent Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes will know, monkeys are not meant to be raised in human families, no matter how noble the intent. Unfolding in linear fashion, Project Nim follows Nim’s journey over the course of 26 years, up until his death.
Nim was treated almost like a human by many of those who looked after him. Nim eventually learned to sign some 125 words, but his journey is not always easy or pleasant, especially as he grows bigger and older. After he attacks LaFarge he is returned to inhumane conditions at the primate research centre, which is almost depicted as a cruel prison. Nim eventually ends up at a large animal rescue shelter in Texas, where he spent the rest of his life.
The film is largely based on Elizabeth Hess’s book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human. Marsh draws upon a wealth of archival 16mm footage, home videos, and artful re-enactments to piece together this fascinating and unexpectedly poignant documentary. There are also candid interviews with those many worked with Nim or cared for him, including Bob Ingersoll, who seemed to form a special attachment to him. Marsh’s methodology is to introduce the characters sitting silently, framed perfectly in the middle of the screen, before they relate their personal stories.
The film explores sexual politics, dysfunctional family dynamics, human hubris, animal cruelty, and crackpot scientific theories. The film also briefly touches upon the morality and ethics of using animals as the subject of scientific tests, and there are some shots of apes strapped to an operating table that may disturb many.
Marsh’s treatment of the material is decidedly unflinching and unsentimental, but still it is not hard to be moved by Nim’s story. Project Nim will move many to anger and dismay at how Nim was treated disdainfully by some of these scientists, who discarded him at the end of the experiment.