EIFF 2011 Film Review: Project Nim

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Nature versus Nurture

(Project Nim, James Marsh, UK, 2011, 93 mins)

The world has long held a fascination with anthropomorphic primates. From entire planets run by the damned, dirty apes to a skyscraper-scaling God-among-gorillas falling in love in New York, the notion that our not-so-distant cousins could one day achieve humanity has frequently been espoused on film.

Now, James Marsh, Oscar-winning director of Man on Wire, joins the man-like monkey club with his latest offering, the feature-length documentary, Project Nim. Utilising a wealth of archival footage and interviews, as well as re-enactments, Marsh chronicles a 1970s experiment to raise a chimpanzee in a human environment, with the ultimate goal being to teach the animal sign language.

The eponymous Nim Chimpsky, named as a cheeky pun on Noam Chomsky – the leading theorist of human language structure at the time – was ripped from his mother’s clutches at just two weeks old. Fostered with ultra-liberal psychology graduate Stephanie LaFarge, a former student – and former lover – of project lead Herbert Terrace, Nim was ostensibly raised as a human child for the first few years of his life. Brought up with LaFarge’s six other children in their New York brownstone, Nim was denied all contact with his own species as they attempted to disprove Chomsky’s theory that humans are the only species capable of language.

Despite that lofty goal, one of the most striking things about these early segments is just how un-scientific the whole undertaking seems. Nim’s time with LaFarge’s family lacks any semblance of structure or experimental control – there are no logs or records kept and no training schedule – and, as a result, their attempts to teach him sign language falter. Indeed, the most memorable achievements of LaFarge are training Nim to dress himself, use the toilet, and – rather hilariously – rousing a love of alcohol, marijuana and riding in fast cars in her hirsute houseguest. As LaFarge herself puts it, ‘it was the seventies.’

After Nim is taken away from LaFarge and into the rather theatrical, more controlled setting of an ex-presidential mansion requisitioned by the project, his sign language vocabulary increases exponentially. But, while footage of Nim asking to play with a cat or to go to the toilet is remarkable, it’s the moments where Marsh examines his subject’s complex duality – his primal nature vying against his partial humanisation by Terrace’s team – that grant Project Nim some of its most memorable moments.

Now a three-foot tall mass of muscle with ‘five to six times the strength of a man’ and a burgeoning sexuality, Nim is just as likely to try to mount the cat as cuddle it. Or, as likely to suddenly pound the face of one of his teachers into the pavement as announce his hunger pangs. Of course, that’s not the only occasion Nim’s true nature breaks through. As he tears a thirty-seven-stitch hole in one researcher’s arm and rips the cheek off another, it becomes clear that, despite his knowledge of sign language, his human-like social interactions, and the obvious affection between Nim and his carers, his identity as a wild animal is inescapable. The team’s slow realisation of this fact – that no matter how well they train Nim, the natural barrier between them will remain insurmountable – lends a rather tragic dimension to Marsh’s piece. After one researcher quits, she sums up this strange mix of fear and love perfectly – ‘it was like breaking up with a bad boyfriend.’

After the inevitable death of the project, Nim’s life takes a dark turn as he is returned to his place of birth – a simian dystopia of small cages and endless grey concrete, where an electric fence is required to stop the inmates wading into their enclosure’s moat to commit suicide. This, and his later sale to the disarmingly acronymed LEMSIP – Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery In Primates – raises some very disturbing questions on the nature of animal research and testing.

With Nim raised in a solely human environment, does placing him into an archetypal animal environ amount to intolerable cruelty?  Likewise, does the fact that he seems aware of what’s happening to him suggest all chimps have that capacity? Couple this with the emotional intelligence Nim displays –to the extent he is capable of manipulating his carers –and is it fair to say that chimps are simply too self-aware to be experimented on without it being unbearably callous?

Alongside these weighty questions, Project Nim gives a rare insight into the goings-on within animal testing labs. Although Marsh doesn’t overplay these scenes, the little that is shown is undoubtedly affecting. Watching one of Nim’s fellow inmates being strapped to a gurney and prodded with countless needless, his glazed eyes flickering around the room, is one of the most harrowing scenes of the film. Indeed, when juxtaposed with the sight of Nim puffing on a joint or apologising to his carers, this segment – barely a few minutes long – is a more effective rebuke to animal testing than almost anything produced by PETA in recent memory.

Of course, Nim’s fate is only part of Marsh’s story; the people who surround the titular simian prove almost as interesting. With their interrelationships seemingly plucked from a bad 1970s soap opera with a fringe science slant, sex, greed, infighting and betrayal are the key themes at play. Still, its two men close to Nim who emerge as the key figures of the piece. On one hand stands Terrace – a self-serving womaniser who seems to regard the project – tellingly populated by beautiful young women – as little more than a means of propagating his own celebrity. On the other is Bob, a lovable, unswervingly loyal caretaker who is unable to decide whether the greatest moment of his life was meeting Nim or being front row at a Grateful Dead concert. Selfishness versus selflessness; treachery versus loyalty – Project Nim offers just as much of an insight into the variable nature of man’s humanity as it does into Nim’s unpredictable duality.

At turns comical – the sight of a joint-puffing, cat-humping chimp will never fail to raise a chuckle – poignant, disturbing, and thought-provoking, Project Nim, in the same manner as Man on Wire, sees James Marsh discern some profound truths about the nature of the world from the very fringes of it. With both Nim and the humans that flit in and out of his life capable of both intense love and insufferable cruelty, Project Nim is a reminder that the fundamentals of humanity can be found in animals, and that beasts can lurk within the hearts of men.


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