Director: James Marsh
Duration: 93 mins
Project Nim asks questions. The balance between ethical and exploitative, nature vs nurture, and the flaws and fairness of isolating a particular species from his own. Not much about Nim Chimpsky – actual name – seems fair. But fairness is relative and by the time his life as science research subject finishes he is more apprehensive of chimp than human contact.
James Marsh, director of the 2008’s Academy Award winning documentary Man On Wire, returns with the story of Project Nim as it asked whether language is an inherently human trait. Using the wealth of archival footage at his disposal the emotional experiences of the teachers, the chimpanzee, and those deeper ethical issues the experiment raised are all explored.
The competent use of and communication through American Sign Language was the bar. The degree to which our chimp actually succeeded in articulating himself is contested. What isn’t is the inherent flaw of conditioning a chimp to live with humans from his earliest weeks and then abandoning him when the experiment runs it course. The emotional bond between subject and his teachers is in no doubt and we are struck at the affinity some of the researchers had – extending long after the original experiment in some instances.
The pleasure of this well crafted story is in watching archival footage of the project’s various teachers interact with Nim and their affection for him. Evocative still photographs also capture the mood. He is treated like an adopted baby – and a spoiled one at that. He is raised by a rich hippy family in an environment of few rules or boundaries – and, it turns out, even fewer scientific norms – through to an upstate New York mansion which eventually housed the project’s central years. At times it all resembles a scientific utopia with cross-species Oedipal entanglements.
In truth, overall, the ethicalities are somewhat sidelined in favour of the obvious emotional connections. The ending, in which a depressed Nim – isolated from chimp and human contact alike in a Texan animal welfare farm (via a medial experiments lab) – is somewhat downbeat compared to its idealistic beginnings. But by concentrating on the emotional connection with our nearest living relative and leaving those larger questions to percolate down through the narrative, the moral implications of animal exploitation in the face of furthering scientific knowledge (no matter how well intentioned) is duly articulated in a neat, quietly fascinating film.