A documentary about the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Following Nim’s extraordinary journey through human society, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature – and indeed our own – is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: James Marsh’s Project Nim ruminates on ideas of 'nature versus nurture’ but these are by no means the only contentious issues raised in this complex, heartbreaking work. The misguided intentions of those motivated – consciously or sub-consciously – by greed and exploitation fuel this sad simian soap opera.
Marsh (Man on Wire) utilises stills, Super-8 frames and other video footage to chart the development of Nim, a chimpanzee removed from his mother as a newborn ('He didn’t struggle or try to get away; he just screamed") and taught to communicate using sign language in a 1970s linguistic experiment.
The title references Jonathan Kaplan’s 1987 military-monkey adventure Project X; one wonders whether that film’s plotting was perhaps inspired by Nim’s happy and well-documented adventures up to that point in time.
At first the ape became the spoilt pet of an extended hippy family on New York’s Upper West side, where he smoked pot and drank alcohol in line with the prevailing beliefs of the time that such substances would expand his consciousness. His human 'mother’ – a psychology student – taught him simple sign language in a radical program devised by linguistic professor Herb Terrace, the least appealing human presence in a film full of fascinating but thoroughly flawed individuals.
With his fate in the hands of scientists whose livelihoods are contingent upon their findings, Nim is paraded for personal and professional gain, and neglected when he begins to exhibit 'anti-social’ tendencies. Of course, these tendencies merely represent the emerging animalistic urges of the beast within, but Nim’s natural urges are of the least interest to those who stand to benefit from the signing chimp with the 120-word vocabulary.
Marsh poses some major existential conundrums in this fascinating film: How relatable are Nim’s reactions given the chimpanzee’s genetic similarities to humans?; To what extent does Nim’s environment shape his psyche and, by extension, what does his forcible confinement say about the validity of the ongoing experiments?; And were those charged with his care and development sufficiently advanced emotionally and ethically to handle such a responsibility?
More so than any of the scientists or activists who fought blinkered battles over the chimpanzee’s well-being, it’s the filmmaker who shows the utmost respect for Nim. Not merely in the chronicling of his journey, which began as a joyous experiment full of good intentions yet became a harrowing case of neglect, but also by exposing the agendas and shortcomings of the human animals that drifted in and out of the tribal life and mind of the ape.
Nim may bite and scratch and impose himself unashamedly upon man and animal alike, but Marsh’s film defines his behaviour as far more genuine, soulful and, ultimately, understandable than any other presence in the film.