From the opening minutes of the film, when the infant Nim is taken from the arms of his mother to live among strangers, his story takes on a Dickensian dimension. Nim’s tale resembles the shape of a serialized narrative as he is passed from one caretaker to the next, each one mostly well-intentioned and loving but also misguided and inevitably self-serving. Each chapter of Nim’s life becomes more astounding, confounding, heartbreaking, and compelling. And though Nim acquires some communication skills, he is never able to speak for himself. Nim, of course, is a chimpanzee and Project Nim recounts his life story.
This film by Marsh, who received an Oscar for his previous documentary, Man on Wire, is tough viewing. It’s impossible not to be moved, outraged, and appalled by Nim’s situation, in which the entirety of his life was governed by the capricious motives and needs of human beings. In short, he is taken in 1973 from the primate colony in Oklahoma where he was born to become a research subject in service to Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace in New York. Terrace wanted to learn if a chimp that was raised as a human child could learn to communicate in full sentences using sign language. At first, Nim lives in a Manhattan brownstone with a hippielike couple and their seven children, where no mind is paid to the fact that Nim is a wild animal and not just a very hairy child. “It was the Seventies,” says one of the couple’s children during an interview recorded for the film. (Still, breast-feeding a chimp in public must have been pretty outré, even in New York.) Next, Nim is moved to an estate near Columbia, where he is tended to by research assistants, many of whom are young women who have affairs with Terrace. For his part, Terrace is like an absent father who shows up for photo ops and media blitzes but remains fairly removed from anything that happens off the university premises. And in the footage of him in his fab Seventies duds and comb-over, driving a sports coupe, Marsh certainly paints Terrace as the vainglorious villain of the piece.
Eventually, Terrace concludes that the chimp has grown too large and strong for cohabitation with humans. Thus begins another tragic string of life changes as Nim is returned to his Oklahoma facility, then to a medical-science lab in upstate New York, followed by a continuing string of relocations. Never having lived among chimps, Nim is baffled by the social behaviors of chimpanzees and lives an often solitary existence. He does seem to make one good friend along the way, however: primatologist Bob Ingersoll.
The film uses present-day interviews with most of the participants in Nim’s life story, along with the ample historic footage of Nim interacting with his handlers and responding to his media celebrity. Marsh also uses the questionable documentary technique of barely discernible re-enactments, as he did with Man on Wire. An emotionally manipulative score by Dickon Hinchliffe yanks viewers’ heartstrings in a less-than-subtle manner. It’s impossible to watch this film without undergoing an emotionally wrenching experience as the highs and lows of this animal’s life are revealed. There is no question Nim was exploited for human gain, yet there are important aspects which Marsh leaves unexplored. Nim was taken advantage of in the exercise of shabby science. No reference is made to Terrace’s self-serving motives as a retort to the theories of linguist Noam Chomsky, who claimed that speech was what set humans apart from other animals – hence Nim’s full name, Nim Chimpsky. Terrace’s record-keeping and scientific rigor were clearly lacking in many regards. And his callous dismissal of the animal once it no longer served his purposes is morally reprehensible. Yet Marsh allows viewers to conclude that all scientific research on animals is disgraceful and inhumane. Nim’s experience is a sad and perhaps cautionary tale, but it is dangerous leap to go from the specific to the general.
Primatologist Bob Ingersoll of the film will attend the 4:40, 7, and 9:20pm shows on Friday and Saturday for Q&As. The film is also part of the AFS Selects series.