DIR: James Marsh • PRO: Simon Chinn • DOP: Michael Simmonds• ED: Jinx Godfrey • DES: Markus Kirschner • CAST: Nim, Bob Angelini, Bern Cohen, Reagan Leonard
A chimpanzee enters the life of an affluent New York family bringing love and mischief to their lives. The animal eats at the family table, is breast-fed, put in nappies, toilet-trained, and learns to communicate with humans.
What sounds like another ‘hilarious’ Jim Carey comedy is in fact one of the most beguiling documentaries you’re likely to see this year. Project Nim lays out the depressing story of a social experiment marked by misinformed idealism that spiraled out of control into tragedy. This is director James Marsh’s follow-up to his celebrated Man on Wire – the suspense of that Oscar®-winning 2008 documentary is here replaced by a heartbreaking tale of human swagger and ignorance trollishly motivated by selfish desires.
In the 1970s, a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (a play on Noam Chomsky, the linguist whose work posits that language (as we know it) is unique to humans) became the subject of a Columbia University research study called ‘Project Nim’. Led by Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia, the project set out to test a theory that a chimpanzee could develop real language by learning to communicate using sign language.
The project involved placing Nim with a family in New York in 1973, where he would be treated as a human child and taught sign language. As a result Nim became an object of human will; at one stage even appearing on the cover of New York magazine in 1975 and in Sesame Street brushing his teeth and using sign language.
What could possibly go wrong?
What follows is a grim account of irresponsible mistreatment and victimization. As Nim develops he naturally demonstrates that this is not the right environment for him. He is shifted from place to place in the care of different people until the experiment is called to a halt in 1978 and events take a darker turn.
The documentary is skillfully constructed through the use of interviews with those involved looking back on their experiences and an impressively large amount of footage shot at the time. Marsh’s occasional lapse into recreated scenes seems out of place, but that’s a minor flaw.
Of all the humans involved in Nim’s life, only one really comes out of it all with any dignity – Bob Ingersoll, an Oklahoma psychology student and Grateful Dead fan. The rest are an ill-informed, self-serving collection whose shallow motivations cannot mask their complicity in Nim’s mistreatment. As one participant carer says about their roles in Nim’s life: ‘We did a huge disservice to him and his soul, and shame on us’.
Marsh has crafted a compelling documentary about a project that exploited its subject without consideration and abandoned it when it no longer served their purposes. Naturally Project Nim tells us much more about humans than chimpanzees.
Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
Project Nim is released on 12th August 2011