“Project Nim,” a new documentary from Academy Award winning director James Marsh, is a portrait of an adopted child who goes on to have a troubled life. The twist here is that the child is a chimpanzee, removed from his mother’s care as an infant to be raised by humans as part of linguistics experiment.
The idea, initiated by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace, is that the chimp will be raised by a human family, taught sign language, all in an effort to see if the animal can learn to form full sentences that indicate grammatical communication. Little Nim wears a diaper, breast feeds from his human mom and develops an impressive vocabulary before being handed from caretaker to caretaker and then, having outlived his usefulness as a learning tool, sent to an animal research lab. Animal lovers should know there is a happy-ish ending, but there are a few harrowing scenes before the end credits roll.
First and foremost Marsh is a storyteller. He breaks down Nim’s tale into a narrative, complete with heroes—the various caretakers who seemed to really love Nim, especially Bob Ingersoll —and villains—the dispassionate Terrace—and everything in between—that would be the naïve Stephanie LaFarge, Nim’s first human mother who moved the primate into her NYC brownstone. Its riveting stuff, expertly told, that will raise questions of the benefits of nature versus nurture and the ethics of animal experimentation, no matter how benign.
Ultimately we learn more about the human cast members than Nim. Much of the behavior in the film is excused by the participants with a dismissive, “Hey, it was the Seventies,” but it’s a justification that rings hollow.
“Project Nim” details a little known case of scientific selfishness coupled with a naïve free-thinking hippie vibe that didn’t work out well for anyone, human or chimp. Perhaps it’s true that this kind of experiment could only have happened in the Seventies, the same decade that gave us the bulk of the “Planet of the Apes” movies. Coincidence? I think not.