James Marsh’s new film Project Nim may not be as giddy an entertainment as his Man on Wire (2008), but it’s a work made with a similar vision. (And a similar tendency to resort to re-created footage to make his points on occasion.) What at first appears to be a slyly amusing film about an experiment that sounds mostly just goofy turns into a reasonably serious indictment—not only of those conducting the experiment, but humanity’s arrogance—and this probably plays a role in why Nim is less fun than its predecessor,
The Nim of Project Nim is a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (a nod to ground-breaking linguist Noam Chomsky). Why? Well, the supposed idea behind the project—initiated by Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace—was to disprove Chomsky’s belief that language and the ability to communicate through it is distinctly and uniquely human. The concept was that if a chimp could be taught to communicate through sign language, Chomsky’s belief would be disproven. So Terrace got himself a chimpanzee from a compound in Oklahoma—the baby wrenched away from his tranqulized mother—and plopped him down in the fancy home of Stephanie LaFarge on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The reasons for choosing LaFarge seem to consist of nothing greater than the fact that Terrace had once had an affair with the woman. Whatever the case, it was a stunningly bad idea—and certainly the antithesis of scientific. LaFarge and her family—described in the film as “rich hippies”—represented the worst of 1970s counterculture permissiveness. (And, frankly, the woman comes off no less ditsy in modern interview footage.) Basically—apart from the very dubious business of her breastfeeding the chimp—they dressed him up like a human, diapered him and let him do whatever he wanted. If there were any actual lessons in sign language from her, I never saw them. I guess Nim’s education included how to smoke pot. A somewhat more structured existence with actual lessons took place in Nim’s next home, but the overall problem with the whole idea of raising a chimpanzee like a human child remains.
Worse, there’s the fact that the basic viability of the experiment—and safety of his caretakers—lessens as Nim ages. It doesn’t help matters that Terrace was remarkably hands-off—except perhaps when it came to Nim’s teacher or a photo op. It isn’t long before Terrace kills the project, returning Nim to the animal compound in Oklahoma. From there, it’s a long slide into ever-worsening circumstances for the animal. There are some bright spots for Nim, mostly courtesy of Bob Ingersoll, who truly befriends the chimp and helps redress of the balance some as concerns 70s counterculture types.
The tale has been called Dickensian by a few critics, and that’s not far off the mark. Nim’s travails would certainly be at home in a Dickens novel. Marsh, however, never works at creating a Dickensian villain—though, interestingly, Terrace inadvertently paints himself as one—perhaps inadvertently. It becomes obvious in interviews with the man that none of this meant anything to him when all was said and done. His memory of specific events is so sketchy and so distracted (he often says what he “thinks” he did, not what he did) that you wonder whether the experiment was ever remotely more than a passing idea that he lost interest in as soon as it started. Ultimately, it’s impossible to have much, if any, sympathy for the man. Nim, on the other hand, earns our full sympathy in this pretty wonderful documentary Rated PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images.