Project Nim

23 Aug

Director: James Marsh (2011)

Anyone who has known me for more than…say five minutes…will soon come to understand that I love monkeys*. I just love them. Like that crazy lady who loves her cats,  I want to live in a house with them, roll down hills with them, dress them as my favourite fictional characters and make them the children I never had. Of course (most of) this is not true. Except the loving monkeys part. I remember seeing a documentary on Channel 4 a few years ago, My Monkey Baby that was at once so wonderful but mainly so disturbing that my aspirations for pet monkeys were soon tainted. Monkeys are clearly not meant to wear ruffles. Or be treated like human babies.

Seeing Project Nim immediately after Rise of the Planet of the Apes, my suspicions were already attuned to the potential consequences of messing with nature/nurture but it seemed a natural progression to move from the fictionalised representation of intelligent primates to how this actually exists in real life.

Directed by master documenter, James Marsh (Man on Wire), Project Nim takes us back to the 1970s, where Nim Chimpsky (named after linguist Noam Chomsky), a chimpanzee taken from his mother as a baby, is the key component of a groundbreaking language experiment aiming to prove that if a chimp is raised as a human baby it will have the capacity to communicate through language. Led by Herbert Terrace at Colombia University, Nim is raised in a Manhattan redstone by his new Brady Bunch-esque family of rich hippies, the LaFarge’s who begin to teach him sign language. Even though they don’t actually speak it themselves… The liberal excuse of ‘It was the 70s’ seems to echo its way throughout the family’s interviews – even in response to the unashamed confession that Mama LaFarge even breastfed Nim as a baby.

When Herb shuts down the experiment, after apparently inconclusive results, most likely after he wore out his welcome seducing the entire student body, Nim is shipped off to a primate sanctuary in Oklahoma where he makes human friends amongst the staff, as opposed to his own kind. However, the centre soon runs out of money and Nim is sold to LEMSIP, the deceptively curatively named ‘Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates’ where he becomes a subject in a hepatitis trial, much to the pain of his new human friends.

Like Man on Wire, Project Nim presents itself as an impressively well balanced documentary offering each talking head the opportunity to present their side of the story, allowing the audience to create their own stance rather than ramming polemics down our throat. Herbert ‘Herb’ in his defiance perpetuates the reputation he seems to have garnered amongst his former staff members – something of a philanderer and a sore loser. On the other hand, Bob Ingersoll, one of the lab technicians at the facility, whose interviews are accompanied by archival footage of him and Nim’s relationship, is heart warming to watch and works to prove that close, loving connections can exist between chimps and humans, even in the face of scientific intervention. And with the assistance of beer and joint smoking. However, the clear regret he feels at being part of the experiment that kept Nim in such damaging captivity shows on his face. For the others, their regret is masked by their perpetual excuses, telling tales of Nim’s violence and aggression as he became what is essentially a teenager with the strength of 6 men as if this should come as a surprise! It seems Bob and the couple, Bill and Joyce, who work with Nim after Herb has called the experiment to an end, having ‘failed’, are the ones who truly understood their place in Nim’s life.

Considering this, Project Nim is not so much about how intelligent chimps are, although Nim has indeed got some impressive vocab skills, but more how humans find it increasingly more necessary to impose their power on any living thing, even if it means corrupting nature itself.

Planet of the Apes analogies aside, Project Nim is essential viewing for anyone looking for an unsentimental and eye opening insight into the world of animal experimentation and the nature/nurture debate as a whole. As Joyce Butler eloquently admits, “We did a huge disservice to that soul…and shame on us”. Go see it as a double bill with ROTPOTA, and then see which side you’re on at the end…Damn dirty apes they may be, but this is exactly the point – they are not humans and so why do we continue to be so surprised when they fail to act like us, just because we dress them in clothes?

*You will have to forgive my zoologogical faux pas by including chimps under the umbrella term of ‘monkeys’ – it’s just easier.


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