In many ways it seems as though 2011 is the rise of our slightly less developed furry all over nearest relative – monkeys, apes, chimpanzees – very literally in the upcoming The Rise of the Planet of the Apes and, although less revolutionary, here also in Project Nim.
Director James Marsh uses a traditional documentary style of juxtaposed archive material and contemporary retrospectives on events from those who partook in them to portray an extremely untraditional story. Nim, a tiny and helpless baby chimp, is forcefully removed from his birth mothers arms and utilized as an avant-garde science experiment that attempts to understand the limits and possibilities of ‘human’ communication by raising him in human environs, and educating him to understand and use sign language. This initial transgression of tearing Nim from his mothers arms acts as the original sin of the piece that then unravels the extraordinary story to follow.
Having been raised from birth by surrogate mother Joanna, the owner of some questionably liberal ethics towards Nim, her position is usurped by the brains behind the project, Herbert Terrace, a somewhat comedic villain. Whether ‘Herb’ really is a bad guy is never fully proved but the documentary certainly does its upmost to stage him as the caricature evil loitering in the background, ever present to instil in Nim a new fear. Other more compassionate members of Nim’s extended family and teachers come off better from the documentarian’s hand of god but in reality none can be expunged of guilt. One interesting character includes Bob Ingersoll who perceives himself a benevolent actor upon Nim. Hypocritically getting him stoned and further teaching him sign language, but all the while reinforcing the fact that chimp’s should in no way be interfered with.
For of course Nim isn’t human, which emerges as quite a difficult concept for his trainers to grasp. As he grows and his strength increases playful childhood antics evolve to violent outbursts in keeping with Nim’s natural irascible behaviour. How ridiculous then that the scientist’s are surprised, and one even outraged, by these turns; but as Herb points out it is the scientist’s appropriation of Nim’s gestures as human that distorts the research and ultimately, quite apparently, the character of Nim himself.
What the film says about human behaviour is perhaps more telling than what it says about Nim’s. For the documentary becomes a microcosmic metaphor for our clear pervasion of the natural world. The scientists are obtuse in their belief that Nim provides the answers to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory of language (that it is inherent only in humans) and in this way the eponymous chimpanzee, however humanist this documentary is, remains a vehicle, a tool, for the lofty academic wars of scientists who are unfazed by the debris they leave in their expeditionary wake.
It is the arrogance of those involved that garners the empathy with Nim in this heart wrenching biopic; an arrogance to fracture something naturally occurring and nurture it in our own ‘godlike’ image. It is an arrogance that leads Nim, unprepared, into the darkest realms of the life of a chimpanzee, a destitute and depraved farm and onwards to the cold slab of a testing centre. It is not that Nim is more special than those he shares these confines with, it is the irresponsibility of those that raised him a nominal human and left him to live a destitute chimpanzee.
Project Nim is a slow and detailed journey – there and back again a chimp’s tale – that is utterly absorbing and intensely compelling. At just over 90mins it feels as though it could have warranted a more full length to give further exposition to those involved in Nim’s journey but it remains a powerful story nonetheless. It is a call for a little self reflection, and those that don’t find themselves pondering humanity and what it means to be humane are indeed likely less human than the titular chimp.