Deborah Ross

Project Nim

This one broke my heart

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.

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