Project Nim is the latest documentary from Oscar-winning director James Marsh (Man on Wire). It's a biography of a primate, Nim Chimpsky, who in the 1970s was the subject of a science experiment that sought to confirm whether a chimp could communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child.
Born into captivity in Oklahoma, baby Nim was taken from his mother at two weeks old and placed with a family in New York. The project was the brainchild of Columbia University Professor Herbert Terrace, and his former student Stephanie Lafarge became, in essence, Nim's 'mother'. She sheltered him, clothed him and allowed him to suckle on her breast. Her family and home was the first of many stages in the five-year experiment.
Project Nim was initially inspired by journalist Elizabeth Hess's biography, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, and while Marsh concedes the book provided the initial idea for the film, he insists they are vastly different propositions. “What I took from [the book] was the story and the idea, that you could tell an animal's life story in a film. That becomes a formal challenge. Can you pull that off? Can an animal's life story support a biographical treatment?”
A second, major differentiation was that two individuals integral to Nim's early life, Professor Terrace and Nim's 'second mother', Laura-Ann Petitto, never spoke to Elizabeth Hess. The presence of Professor Terrace in particular creates a dramatic tension that's equally as fascinating as the story of Nim's life, in and out of captivity. Marsh teases out these elements to create an absorbing, multi-layered web of interpersonal relationships that raised questions of romance and sexuality, behaviour and power. They were, says Marsh, “relationships within the human world that had an impact on Nim's life in quite profound ways”.
Throughout Project Nim, lines between professionalism, personal relationships and science blur. Yet Marsh remains impartial, leaving it to his interviewees to raise the pertinent issues of ethics, morality and animal welfare. “I don't try and make judgements about people or explore the morality of their choices,” says the director. “I can't be sure about those things. What I can be sure about is what they did. What choices they made and what actions they took. Everything else is speculation, both on their part and on mine. If there are people in the film who we think don't behave particularly well, it's based on their decisions, not on my opinions about them.”
One such interviewee is Professor Terrace, whose presence in the documentary creates a transparency that Marsh reveals to the fullest. “He was quite happy with the idea of being in the film,” says Marsh. “He proved something and he's proud of that achievement. He was happy to speak about the experiment and the conduct of the experiment and what happened to Nim. He wasn't quite so happy to talk about some of the relationships he had, some of which were antagonistic. That didn't really matter because the people involved were happy to speak about their residual antagonism or feelings towards him. From his tight-lipped response to personal questions — which he's perfectly entitled to, by the way — we were able to find out what went on from people who were less self-sensoring.”
Archival material was always going to be vital in this unusual biography. As Marsh says, “When you set out on a film like this you hope and assume there's some archive. It's often the first question you ask people who are involved in the story: Did you photograph him or film him? Early on we realised we had some very interesting footage from Stephanie. The big discoveries were finding footage of Nim's first encounter with another chimpanzee after five years of living with people. It is an extraordinarily profound moment for him.”
Marsh brings a texture to the images that match their discordant perspectives. “The way that I go about it is to try and put on a good show and make sure that I'm telling a story that flows forward in a confident, gripping way,” he says. “To do that, you use any technique that's available to you and that you think is appropriate in telling your story. When people sit down and the lights go down and the curtains go up, it's all on.”
Finally, I ask Marsh about his own views on science. The answer is, for him, complicated. “My view of science is rather sceptical. Science has its own standards, and I understand that. There are certain aspects of science that you can quickly submit yourself to, the idea of having evidence to prove things and verify things, it goes on and on, but my encounter with science in this particular story was somewhat lacking. In fact, there is no end game in place in this experiment.”