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Project Nim

This one broke my heart

6 August 2011

12:00 AM

6 August 2011

12:00 AM

Project Nim is a story about man and chimp in which chimp comes out of it well, man does not and, I’m warning you, it’s fascinating, but not pretty. The starting point is an Oklahoma lab in 1973 when Nim, a male baby chimp, is taken from his mother at a fortnight old and sent to be raised by a human family as part of an experiment to discover if another species can learn to communicate with us.

We follow Nim all the way, from the moment he is wrenched from his mother’s arms, through Seventies’ academia — a peculiarly hilarious time; Nim is fond of the odd spliff — and right to the end, by which time his helpless innocence has been fully exploited and science has lost interest.

This is a compelling and engrossing film but, like I said, it’s not pretty, and it will break your heart. It broke my heart and, I’m not going to lie, I full-on wept. Oh, Nim. Poor Nim. Forgive us, we know not what we do? Nice try, but I don’t think that is going to wash here.

This is a film by James Marsh, whose last documentary was the splendid Oscar-winning Man On Wire. Here, he splices together archive footage with re-enacted footage (sometimes successfully, sometimes less so, but the subject matter is so intrinsically powerful it doesn’t seem to matter) and candid interviews with all the major players.

The experiment was the idea of the Columbia behavioural psychologist Herb Terrace, who named the chimp Nim Chimpsky as a jokey taunt to Noam Chomsky, the celebrated linguist who believed language acquisition was a uniquely human ability. Terrace, in turn, believed that if Nim could be taught sign language, and could be shown to use that sign language beyond mimicry by building grammatical sentences, Chomsky’s theory could be decisively negated.

Nim, of course, was not consulted on any of this, although, if he could have communicated, I’m guessing he’d have said, ‘I think I’ll pass on this, if it’s all the same to you.’ And: ‘You can’t just evolve a human whenever you so fancy, you know.’

Under Terrace’s chillingly arrogant supervision — man does not come out of this well, and Terrace even less so — Nim has a variety of carers and teachers over the years. The first, Stephanie LaFarge, has a blended family of seven children and lives in a brownstone in Manhattan. Ms LaFarge was, at that time, a graduate student of Terrace’s, and a former lover. Terrace seems to have been involved with all his female staff, one way or another.

This is ostensibly a story about a monkey, but it is as much a tale about power, sex, greed and the human ego run amok. Anyway, Stephanie brings Nim up with her own children. She breastfeeds him, even, and we see Nim brushing his teeth, attempt toilet training, and wear little shorts and T-shirts, which seems queasily diminishing all round.

The experiment is misbegotten from the word go, although I’ve no idea why no one could see this. Chimpanzees are not quasi humans, after all, and no one allows for Nim’s essential nature, which soon becomes apparent. Nim tears up Stephanie’s house, attacks her husband, whom he views as a rival male, and quite literally bites the hand that feeds it. (A chimp, by the way, is five times more powerful than the human male.) After five years, Terrace decides that Stephanie is ‘not being scientific enough’ — coming from the psychoanalytic school she has, though, taken notes on Nim’s masturbatory habits and allowed him to explore her body — and removes Nim, who is, from then on, shuttled between surrogate parents until Terrace decides the experiment is over, and Nim is callously abandoned. (Sorry, but there was no nicer way of putting it.)

Marsh is a fine interviewer, and an exemplary documentary maker who knows how to involve an audience, plus negotiate all the moral complexities without didacticism. He does not tell us; he shows us. He does not tell us about Nim’s sexual frustration, but shows us footage of Nim humping a kitten. (Not something the kitten ever expected to experience in its lifetime, I’m sure.) He does not tell us about Nim’s loneliness and abandonment, but continually uses tracking shots to visualise the humans slipping out of Nim’s life.

And although there are lighter, more compassionate, touching moments — watch out for Bob, who proves Nim’s one true friend — I will leave you with the words of one of Terrace’s helpers, who says of the experiment, ‘Shame on us.’ This isn’t an easy ride, but it’s an important one which shows who the true beast is around here. And it is not Nim.

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