Humans tend to be rather arrogant when it comes to respecting other species. Our ever-advancing technologies, roads and cities encroach onto the habitats of wild animals, as they are forced to move or worse, driven towards extinction. We have zoos and animal testing research facilities which, although they may benefit us for many reasons in the long-run, don’t really consider that to maximise the health and well-being of their subjects, captivity isn’t always the answer. Project Nim took this one step further, by assessing the ability of a chimpanzee to learn sign language whilst living with a family in the middle of New York.
The subject of the film, Nim Chimpsky (loosely named after Noam Chomsky who believed that only humans could learn language as we know it), was a chimpanzee taken away from his mother shortly after birth and given to the family of Stephanie LaFarge to raise as a human baby. Alongside Nim’s unusual upbringing, he was taken to Columbia University where a team of scientists taught him American Sign Language as part of a study to see if apes can learn to develop language skills. At home, Nim wore clothes, was even breastfed by Stephanie and encouraged to use the sign language he had learnt to ask for food, drink, express the need to go to the toilet and even smoke marijuana. Concerns were raised however, when Nim started to display increasing characteristics of his kind, biting into the cheek of one of his teachers quite horrifically.
Nim was subsequently removed from the family home and eventually ended up at a medical research laboratory on the campus of the University of Oklahoma. This was the first time Nim had really any interaction with other chimps. Bob Ingersoll, a research graduate at the university, used sign language to comfort him in his new, alien surroundings. This particular facility was the kind we see at the beginning of ‘don’t mess with nature films’ which turns out to be an appropriate verdict on the whole enterprise, but here it marks more the beginning of the end of the project and Nim’s cushy life. He was rescued and taken to a quiet retirement ranch for small animals, where he lived out the rest of his days before dying of a heart attack at the age of 26.
Project Nim has to be reviewed on two counts. Is this an affecting subject matter for a documentary and do the filmmakers do this subject justice? This answer is yes and not really, in that order. Nim’s life story is deeply moving and it is difficult watching the film without being bewildered at how naive and reckless the people who conceived this idea must have been. It is easy to say that looking back, but even so, the way in which Nim was taken from his mother (who, by the way we are told, knew what was coming as her previous offspring had been whisked off just as cruelly), without a thought for either of them, is hard to take in. Despite there being a certain goal to the whole exercise, was there enough research done to ensure that Nim’s welfare was the top priority and not that it was to prove people wrong or gain publicity? There is a great deal of uncertainty as to whether this was the case – a vain project this looks to have been.
As a stand-alone documentary, Project Nim feels too cobbled together. What is essentially a mish-mash of home footage, diagrams and talking heads makes the whole experience feel like you’re watching one of those old educational films you’d see at school. The result is a detachment from a story which should really grip you from start to finish, but instead becomes strangely tedious – much like James Marsh’s overrated documentary of Philippe Petit’s daring World Trade Center stunt in Man on Wire (2008). However, while you root for Nim and those who care for him (not really that many as it turns out), Marsh does manage to let those who had first-hand access to the chimp to have their say and not let bias get in the way of a good story.
Project Nim has received too much praise, mainly based on sentimentality for Nim and his tragic fate. As first and foremost a documentary, this is certainly one that is worth watching but not for its structure or style, that’s for sure.