Project Nim review (DVD)

A new documentary from director James Marsh is a cause for some excitement after the huge critical and commercial success of the Oscar winning Man on Wire. Project Nim amply rewards such anticipation and is one of this year’s most intriguing and provocative factual films.

The subject matter is a study of animal language acquisition conducted in the 1970s by Professor Herbert S. Terrance of Columbia University.  Provoked by linguist Noam Chomsky’s claim that only human brains were hard wired for the development of language, Terrance sought to disprove this hypothesis by teaching sign language to a chimpanzee. An infant chimp is acquired from a research facility and jokingly christened him Nim Chimpsky by the project personnel. Nim was initially sent to live with the LaFarge family in Manhattan, where he was essentially raised as a human child alongside several human children and a dog. Following a breakdown in relations between the LaFarge’s and Terrance, Nim is then taken to a rural estate staffed by projects research students.

Project Nim is structured as a traditional biographical narrative, although its subject is a non-human one. However Marsh avoids the temptation to anthropomorphise Nim in the fashion of popular nature documentaries such as March of the Penguins. In fact the folly of the research team’s failure to recognise that Nim is an animal is a key theme in the film. This is never better illustrated than a jaw dropping moment when Stephanie LaFarge reveals that she breastfed Nim. Her subsequent discussion of chimp sexuality is likely to make your flesh crawl, she says she never had sexual relations with Nim, but her reason is primarily that he was a child the fact he is off a different species seems immaterial. LaFarge’s complete obliviousness to just how transgressive her mothering relationship to Nim was is stupefying, and is shown to have near disastrous consequences.

A key issue with the experiment is that Terrance and his research assistants seem to have no idea at all about chimpanzees. Crucially a vet is not part of the experiment. They all coo over the small furry bundle of energy that is the infant Nim, but he quickly matures into an adolescent animal five times stronger than a human male, with fangs that could peel your face off. No consideration whatsoever seems to have been paid to just how dangerous an environment the projects young assistants were working in. Interestingly Terrence’s students overwhelmingly tend to be 18-20 years old, female, and very attractive. The milieu of 70’s academia is so casually evoked by the interview subjects (including Terrance) that Marsh doesn’t need to editorialise. Terrance, it must be said, really does not come out of this film well.

An already dark story becomes darker when lack of funding brings the project to a close. After being raised from birth by humans, and socialised by them, Nim is delivered back to the Oklahoma research facility from where he was acquired and is casually abandoned. From a life of relative freedom Nim finds himself in a cage and must meet other chimpanzees for the first time. His obvious terror and distress will be difficult for the most hardened of viewers. However there are further twists to the tale to come.

Project Nim is comprised of talking head interviews and a remarkable amount of footage of Nim by Terrance, his research team, the family Nim was placed with, and subsequent carers after the end of the research project. Quickly the feeling of watching a documentary falls away and one is swept up in a fascinating narrative. The film feels like a piece of classic 70s science fiction, although it is interesting that none of the scientists involved seems to have ever watched a Planet of the Apes film. I found it impossible to watch this and not think of the Apes series, but also of Ken Russell’s Altered States as sexually liberated, hippy scientists blithely mess around with the natural world with no regard for consequences, very loose ethics, to an end that seems to have little in the way of real world value.

This is one of the very best feature documentaries of 2011, and makes a very interesting companion piece to Rise of the Planet of the Apes which has striking parallels with the sad true story of a chimp named Nim even if ultimately the true story is the stranger one.

EXTRAS ★★½ An audio commentary with director Marsh; the featurette Making Nim (32:15); the featurette Bob's Journey (10:28; and a photo gallery).

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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