Film review: Project Nim

A true story of how humans nurtured, used and then abandoned a chimp is unsettling for Duncan Wu

August 4, 2011

Credit: Pic Select

Project Nim

Directed by James Marsh

Starring Bob Angelini, Bern Cohen and Reagan Leonard

Released in the UK on 12 August

Project Nim begins with an act of cruelty: the removal of a baby chimp from its mother. James Marsh's documentary goes on to narrate Nim's life - first with a family living in New York City in the 1970s, by whom he was brought up as a human, then among a group of scientists conducting experiments into the ability of chimpanzees to learn sign language. Marsh's focus isn't on the science, although the pretensions of the scientists are relevant to his story; this is the biography of a monkey.

The film's subject is the callousness of otherwise compassionate human beings. "I regarded him as a scientific project" is the most chilling statement in it, for it underscores the self-interestedness of the man who engineered Nim's introduction to the exclusive company of humans, among whom he would remain for five years. If not the villain of the film, Professor Herbert Terrace shares some characteristics with Victor Frankenstein. It was he who determined abruptly when the "experiment" had ended and that Nim be placed in a cage full of other chimpanzees - an environment to which he was completely unsuited.

That was by no means the lowest point of Nim's life; worse was to come in a medical facility that injected animals with diseases such as hepatitis and HIV so that they could be tested with experimental vaccines. One of the most heartbreaking remarks in this film comes from one of those involved: "We were aware that the animals were attempting to communicate with us using sign language, but none of us understood it." That sums up the plight of an intelligent being abandoned to an unspeakable fate by those it had learned to trust.

Anyone who has seen Marsh's previous documentary Man on Wire (2008) will know him as an accomplished storyteller, and Project Nim is a no less stylish display of narrative expertise. Drawing on archive film, graphics and interviews, he weaves together the life story of a wild animal who learned what it meant to be human. There are also, apparently, some reconstructions but they are so seamlessly executed I was unable to distinguish them from archive footage.

Nim certainly had character: he liked alcohol, illegal drugs, fast cars and was a cat-lover. His tragedy was that, although able to function among us, he could never be other than what he was - a wild animal. His violent outbreaks were true to his nature, even though he afterwards apologised to those he injured. He was human only for his value as an "experiment", after which he was thrown back into a cage.

In narrative terms, Nim is a touchstone for the qualities of those with whom he came into contact. One of the most intriguing examples is that of Stephanie LaFarge, the sexologist and psychoanalyst who took the baby chimp into her family home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and breastfed him, bringing him up in nappies with her other children. "The world would scare him, so he hung close to me," she recalls. How terrifying, then, for him to be torn away to live full-time among scientists. Years later, when she visited Nim in captivity, he exacted his revenge, beating her unconscious.

Scientists don't come out of it well, although not all are lacking in self-awareness. The one person who does emerge with credit is Grateful Dead fan Bob Ingersoll, ignored by the experts, who befriended Nim after his abandonment and never lost touch, trying to school successive owners in how best to care for the creature. This sorry tale is a tribute to Bob's sense of responsibility, which exposes the self-serving behaviour of others for what it was.

Such judgements must be the work of the viewer, for Marsh is too intelligent a director to dictate them. The actors in Nim's story relate their part in his life as they see it without additional commentary. But Marsh requires us to be more than passive observers; we are enjoined to "read" this simian biography as a portrait of those who, besides reflecting the fads of late 20th-century America, were guilty of arrogance and vanity, educating an intelligent being in the ways of humans before condemning it to the fate of a lab rat.

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