Project Nim is a documentary about an ape. A hairy, crap flinging ape. What do I care about an ape? A chimp, no less. The type you used to see wearing work trousers in PG Tips adverts.
The story of this particular ape, however, is one worth hearing. Nim was plucked from its mother’s bosom while still an infant, and thrust into a middle class life in upstate New York. Another reason to be interested in Project Nim: it’s the new film by James Marsh, who previously brought us another captivating story with Manhattan Island as a backdrop, 2008’s uplifting Man On Wire.
The tale Project Nim has to tell may be about a chimpanzee, but it’s nevertheless a story about drugs, booze, bad behaviour, reckless driving, and long, dark nights of the soul. While cinema’s full of money movies, whether it’s massive ones going apeshit like King Kong and its various sequels and remakes, or Oscar-worthy biopics like Gorillas In The Mist, this factual story is every bit as fascinating as one dreamt up by a Hollywood hack, and with little more than archival pictures and footage, and the talking heads of those involved with this one particular chimpanzee, Marsh has constructed a gripping little narrative.
The story begins in the 1970s, when quixotic psychologist, Professor Herbert Terrace embarked on what would become a groundbreaking piece of research. It was under his guidance that this infant chimp, later christened Nim, was taken from its mother and placed in the arms of Stephanie LaFarge, a former student of Herb’s, and raised as a normal human baby.
Since chimpanzees lack vocal chords, Stephanie and Herb’s other workers begin a programme of sign language training. Meanwhile, Stephanie forms a close bond with Nim, and begins to treat the creature as a mother would a normal human infant. This being the 70s, though, she takes a rather relaxed, counterculture approach to parenting. Nim soon develops a worrying capacity for alcohol and marijuana, and even enjoys being driven around in fast cars.
Stephanie, in a brief sentence that’s quickly passed over, also mentions that Nim enjoyed fast motorbikes. Regardless of whether the chimp was the passenger or the rider, the concept of a simian hurtling around the mean streets of 70s New York, possibly while high on lager and herbal cigarettes, is both amusing and disquieting.
Stephanie was the first in what would become a procession of carers and friends whom Nim would encounter over the course of his life. At no point does Marsh’s film attempt to romanticise, much less humanise, Nim himself. Much of the human-like behaviour Nim apparently displayed (and it was, at times, extraordinarily human-like, particularly in his earlier years) was as a result of his prolonged contact with Homo sapiens, rather than his own kind, a fact that becomes poignantly clear later on in his life, when Nim has to be shown how to interact with other chimpanzees.
Nim’s story, therefore, is as much about the people that looked after him (or in most cases, exploited him) as it is about the chimp himself. Of all the characters in this broad ensemble piece, Herb comes across as the least sympathetic, less sympathetic than even the representative of a medical research facility, which is something of a feat.
The real hero of the piece is Bob Ingersoll, a carer who becomes one of the few people to truly care for Nim’s wellbeing.
While these dramas unfold, it’s fascinating how Nim’s ability to communicate via sign language makes him both more identifiably human-like, yet, at the same time, utterly unknown. What Project Nim managed to expose, though, was the difference between humans and their ancestors. There’s something unknowable, even frightening, about the strength this creature possesses, and at the same time, there’s something disarming in his decidedly human fear of the unknown, and of separation from the people he comes to trust.
Project Nim exemplifies all that is good and rather dark about we humans. Our compassion and concern for members of other species is wonderful and peculiarly human, yet our ability to exploit animals for our own ends, and then callously discard them once they’ve outlived their usefulness, is surely one of our nastier attributes.
Project Nim is a fascinating and insightful documentary, and far more revealing and thought-provoking than a film about a crap-slinging chimp might imply.