Here’s a warning: do not see James Marsh's Project Nim
before you see Rise of the Apes
. In fact if you’re planning on seeing any films which involve humans raising animals, try and cram them all in before you watch this documentary – it’ll be extremely hard to enjoy them post-Nim.
That’s not to say that you should avoid Project Nim
– in fact it’s one of those documentaries that feels like it should be compulsory viewing for all humans. By the Oscar winning team behind the amazing Man on Wire
, the film follows Columbia University’s now infamous experiment in the 1970s which aimed to see if chimpanzees could be taught to communicate with humans.
Sounds the like the plot of nearly every monkey movie there is, right? And in a way, Project Nim
does start off like a real like Rise of the Apes
. The documentary begins with the abrupt snatching of baby chimp Nim from his mother and delivery into the arms of scientist Hebert S Terrace, who already has big plans for the tiny bundle.
He arranges for one of his students (who he was previously been involved with) to take in Nim and care for him as if he were one of her children, despite her complete lack of experience with chimpanzees. Nim is clothed, is bottle feed while looking adoringly up at his ‘mother’ and plays with the dog, feeling pretty comfortable in his Upper West Side Manhattan digs.
However Nim’s time with his human family is short-lived, when pretty soon Herbert realises that while the chimp is being well cared, for he isn’t actually proving any hypotheses. Nim is again transported to a mansion in the country full of Herbert’s students who will teach Nim sign language to bridge the gap between humans and apes. Nim grows, forges relationships with his young and idealistic teachers and Herbert swans in every few months to check the data.
It goes without saying that when Nim begins to reach adulthood, problems arise. Tensions begin growing between the teachers, who see Nim’s progress (he ends up learning over 100 signs) and choose to ignore his burgeoning attitude problems, Herbert is on TV talking about his findings without taking the time to hang out with Nim outside photo opportunities, and he also decides to have affairs with a couple of his students. The experiment becomes very muddled.
Without ruining it, Project Nim
is a film that tragic and fascinating in equal measure. The questions of nature versus nurture are explored, the link between humans and animals is made abundantly clear, and the issue of medical testing on animals, a practice that still happens today, is ripped open in all its horrific splendour.
It may be unsettling, but Project Nim
is an important documentary about love, which refuses to demonise anyone (even if they deserve to be) but instead tells the story from multiple perspectives so we can make up our own minds. Sorry James Franco, this is the best chimp movie of the year.