In Project Nim, documentary maker James Marsh takes a look at what happens when a string of incompetent 1970s Bohemian hippies are entrusted to raise and educate a young Chimpanzee in the name of science. The film retraces a real life experiment researching the limits of cognitive abilities in primates, questioning whether it is possible for humans and Chimps to communicate through sign language.
Despite beginning with seemingly legitimate intentions the project would quickly descend into a chaos of misguided nut jobbery, sexual exploitation, and outright animal abuse – sometimes all at once.
The titular Nim is first introduced as a tiny and shrivelled new born still clinging to his terrified mother inside their research pen, as several nice looking uniformed gentlemen with clipboards approach. The terror displayed by Nim’s mother gives no doubt that she is fully aware of what is about to happen, not surprising given that all seven of her previous babies were taken from her in a similar fashion.
Never to see his mother again, nor another chimp for over a decade, Nim is handed over to primate researcher Herbet Terrace. Herbert is an intensely shifty man, incapable of giving any interview without spasms of guilt, shame, and lies shooting across his face. With a penchant for employing liberally minded young lady students to carry out his experiment and generally preferring to take a back seat role until the news networks become interested, Herbert’s own motives become increasingly suspect. To begin with he places Nim into the care of his stark raving mad ex-girlfriend to be raised in her bohemian family just as if he were one of her own children. Nim is given free reign to act as a chimp, or to smoke weed alongside the rest of the family. Though clearly providing him with a lot of love and attention, the ex-girlfriend quickly develops a disturbing oedipal relationship with the infant, beginning with the mildly disturbing sight of breast feeding, but quickly stepping up to body exploration and leg humping.
What quickly becomes apparent is that the ‘science’ behind the research being conducted is none existent. Though Nim is regularly and quite successfully taught to sign, no notes are taken, no structure imposed, and no conclusions are drawn to any of his behavior (except of course to thoroughly monitor his masturbating habits). Exactly who green lit funding for the research, or what organisation bestowed qualifications on these people is a complete mystery.
Despite Nim’s increasingly aggressive and sexual behavior, and the obvious presumption that a Chimp will one day be capable of tearing a human to pieces, the study is bizarrely continued in its laissez faire approach, bearing no results other than battered and bruised women, media attention, and some video footage of Nim humping a terrified cat. Herbet regularly swoops in to Nim’s life simply to tear him from his surrogate mother and hand him over to the next attractive young woman, only for the same pattern of naive and neglectful care to unfold.
Only after several brutal and near fatal attacks does anyone consider that Nim may require more professional and resourced care than a group of inexperienced college girls can provide, at which point Herbet mysteriously looses interest in the whole project, and promptly dumps Nim into a research facility with a colony of tortured and bitter chimps. What follows is an increasingly depressing and tragic tale, following Nim’s struggle with a lack of identity as either human or chimp, and a decent into a life of abuse and isolated captivity.
The demonstration of stupidity on display becomes incredible to behold as each of Nim’s carers seems incapable of learning when they are putting themselves in real danger, or when they are stunting the development of their subject. Being a chimp Nim wants nothing more than to play games, wrestle, hump things, and challenge people for dominance, and no matter how many times he looses control the fools continue under the illusion that all he needs is a telling off. The interview’s, conducted several decades after the events, become frustrating to listen to as the individuals show an incredulous inability to face reality. It is summed up best as one woman recalls a less than successful reunion, as Nim unleashed his long pent up resentment on a surrogate mother from his early life (the bohemian ex-girlfriend): “We took the sign that he didn’t fully kill her as a good one.”
Nim did briefly enjoy the company of a human who understood his nature as a chimp and cared more about his well being than Herberts seemingly indifferent approach to his research, or the attention of the media. As a result the two got on famously and allowed Nim to enjoy his favorite past times of playing around and smoking pot, while making some progress with his communication. Bob, a full time slacker-stoner, becomes the unlikely good guy and the only human involved with any sense.
The footage is presented in a heavily stylistic and dramatic fashion, James Marsh being an experienced hand at documentary making. Music and editing needlessly prompt responses of shock, disturbance, and tragedy from the audience where they are really not required. The subject matter can speak for itself. Most of the footage of Nim actually shows him running around, playing and being happy, while most of the dramatic events are told anecdotally by the experiments participants speaking over pictures and some fairly abstract reconstructions. Perhaps this should raise some questions over how much the events have been manipulated but it is the words and actions of the humans surrounding Nim which tell the true story.
Nim’s life is deeply fascinating and touchingly tragic; an important tale well told through this emotionally gripping documentary. But the by now cliched lesson of ‘man is worse than beast’ falls a little flat this time considering that these particular humans have barely functioning cognitive abilities of their own.