Project Nim is the latest documentary from James Marsh, director of the Academy Award-winning Man On Wire. In each film Marsh takes a well-known, media-friendly event from the ’70s and gives it context with a meticulous and impressive mix of archival footage, interviews and dramatic re-enactments. The film is based on the book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human by Elizabeth Hess. Nim Chimpsky is a humourous homage to linguist Noam Chomsky, but his name is curiously not addressed in the film.
Project Nim tells the story of Nim, a chimpanzee born in captivity in Oklahoma and taken from his mother to New York by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace to be raised as a human. Terrace wants to know if a chimpanzee can be taught to speak using American Sign Language, and he recruits ex-girlfriend Stephanie LaFarge to be Nim’s foster-mother. Nim is raised with her family and is bright and affectionate to everyone except her writer husband who he sees as a male threat. Because this story takes place in the ’70s, Nim is of course breastfed and eventually allowed to smoke pot and drink alcohol like any other member of the hippy family.
Terrace, who visits infrequently, tires of Nim’s slow progress and moves him and his new full-time trainers to a large Riverdale estate he has been lent for the purposes of this experiment. Nim learns quickly and eventually grows a vocabulary of 125 signs. Terrace seemingly only shows up for press opportunities and to sleaze on the attractive female students he hired as Nim’s trainers. Once Nim grows into adolescence, his natural aggression begins to rise and his attacks on trainers increase in regularity and viciousness. Trainers come and go, and eventually Terrace decides that it’s time to shut down Project Nim. What follows is an unbelievably cruel and heartbreaking series of events in the melancholy second half of Nim’s life. There is a hero, however, who saves this story from tragedy and that is Bob Ingersoll. Ingersoll is a long-haired, Grateful Dead-fanatic who worked at the Oklahoma facility Nim was transferred back to and he becomes Nim’s best and most faithful friend.
Marsh is obviously less interested in the dull specifics of linguistics and scientific research than he is in telling the story of the people involved in Project Nim, and they often don’t come across very well. Herbert Terrace in particular is the film’s obvious villain with his cold, detached treatment of Nim. Like Bob Ingersoll, Marsh doesn’t seem interested in trying to answer the question of whether or not Nim learned to communicate properly with his film, but rather suggests instead of attempting to make an intelligent species human we should treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve. While much of Project Nim is hilarious, it is ultimately a heartbreaking tale of academic arrogance run amok. It is also the best documentary of 2011 so far and comes highly recommended.
Project Nim screened last week in Auckland as part of the NZ International Film Festival programme. It will be screening at locations around the country in the coming weeks and months as the festival progresses.
Check out the trailer for Project Nim below.
As a bonus, you can also watch the first six minutes of Project Nim over at Slashfilm