(James Marsh, 2011, USA)
From Oscar winner James Marsh, the director of 2008’s balmy documentary Man on Wire, comes Project Nim, another controversial true story of 70s absurdity and fascination. Told with intricately woven talking heads and home video footage, amongst other indicative techniques, Marsh’s latest is an absorbing and thought-provoking assessment of this intriguing investigation of human-chimp relations, which builds to a devastatingly frank conclusion.
In 1973, Project Nim was an extraordinary experiment devised by Professor Herb Terrace, who wanted to see if a chimpanzee (Nim Chimpsky) could adapt to homosapien life by implanting him into a family and taught to communicate through sign language. Adapting all too comfortably to the doting adoration of the family, Nim became something of a spectacle for them to dress up, breastfeed and treat as an extension of their sibling dynamic, but it was only a matter of time before the true nature of the experiment was brought to light. Sent away to a secluded research environment by Terrace, who wanted more of a rigorous approach to the study than he was getting from a family uninterested in the science aspect of the study, Nim became the victim of thorough domestication, wearing diapers and taught how and when to sign to get what he wants, though the manipulation on the part of the humans slowly began to have harmful and sometimes violent ramifications, as Nim started to develop a frightening embrace of his intellect and animalistic nature.
Literally carting on and off each key member of Nim’s life, from Herb Terrace, who fails to live down his eventually antagonistic presence in the film and indeed the experiment, to his figurative mother Stephanie Lefarge, Marsh has sculpted an unmediated dialogue throughout the film, offering conflicting arguments for and against the ensuing treatment of Nim, especially when he is subjected to physical scientific experiments. Creating something of a heated opposition between each figure, who all express different views about how Nim should have been treated as both an animal and a living presence, the film consciously refuses to take a side and instead presents you with the facts and allows the debate to emanate from them. A safe position for Marsh for sure, but his melding of stylistically captured interviews, Super 8 footage and reconstructions (which rarely do anything more than fuel the flames) offer substantial food for thought and flesh out Nim’s chequered presence. As a character, Nim is unbiased and non-judgemental, a passive, innocent victim of human wrongheadedness who had no say in his exploitation, which shines a negative light on those who took advantage of his muted submission yet paints a positive portrait of those who took him under their wing and fought against his injustice. It is incredibly telling that Marsh can take the position of a deceased simian and analyse those who sculpted and defined his life, creating an affectionate, humorous but emotionally conflicting story of the fraught, ongoing boundaries between animal and human interaction, which can act as both a touching biography and a cautionary warning for further experimentation.