Project Nim

Project Nim


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

In 1973, scientist Professor Herbert Terrace embarked on an experiment to try to find out if a chimpanzee could learn to communicate with humans through sign language. The chimp - taken from his mum at just two weeks old - was called Nim, and James Marsh's emotionally charged documentary charts his story.

Featuring surprisingly candid interviews with the scarily large number of people who looked after Nim through his life, this is a sometimes funny, sometimes harrowing watch. With the help of the testimony of these 'carers' and a wealth of archival video and still photography - plus a few slightly sensational 'acted' segments - Marsh shows how this baby animal not so far down the evolutionary ladder from us was initially brought up as though he was human. This meant he had no contact with his own species for the first few years of his life, was taught to dress himself and use the toilet and was even breastfed by his first surrogate mother Stephanie LaFarge - "It was the Seventies," she says, in reference to her decidedly free-range household of the time.

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In many ways, however, these were golden years for Nim because, at age five, he was thrust out of this environment and back into a primitive, caged existence at a university research facility, with much worse still to come.

Ideas of communication are front and centre of Marsh's documentary - not just in terms of the footage of Nim interacting with his various carers. We're also invited to take a long hard look at the scientists and others who looked after him. Much of their interaction with Nim caught on camera in the Seventies says as much about the ways in which he altered their behaviour them as the other way around. Marsh also uses his camera to good effect as he captures their recollections, lingering unflinchingly on them as they talk and dollying sideways away from them after they'd finished, as though moving on to another specimen in this zoo of memory. Much of this testimony is highly emotional and what emerges is a picture of botched and latently cruel, if on the face of it, well-meaning science.

Initial placement of Nim seems to have been based more on the whims and lusts of Prof Terrace than from any hard scientific drivers. "Unconsciously, I took advantage," he says, rather disingenuously. Whether Nim had a proper 'vocabulary' as such is moot, but there is no doubt that he was frequently able to get those around him to do what he wanted - or, possibly, they simply projected human attributes on to him so much that they thought they were giving in - and, as he passed through their lives, he left an indelible imprint.

Marsh's documentary is constrained somewhat by the narrowness of its subject matter - this is a chimp-opic, so the focus is firmly on Nim, meaning that issues of animal cruelty and testing are mentioned in passing but not explored in any in-depth way, although the footage that is used is truly hard-hitting.

What Marsh does offer is a thorough and provocative portrait, which shies away from anthropomorphising Nim as much as possible - accentuating his animal nature as well as what might be considered more "human" attributes - and which invites us to consider our attitudes to this species so similar, yet different from our own.

Reviewed on: 22 Jan 2011
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The turbulent life of a chimpanzee whom scientists tried to teach sign language.
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Director: James Marsh

Starring: Nim

Year: 2011

Runtime: 93 minutes

Country: UK

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