In the early 70s, psychologist Hubert Terrace began an experiment that would be seen as controversial for years to come. Terrace tried to resolve the argument of nature versus nurture, ie Are human beings intrinsically born wired ready to speak or do they pick it up as a means of fitting in and survival? To help him solve this quandary, he gave one of his old students a 2 week old chimp, named him Nim Chimpsky (snort), asked her to raise him as one of her own and basically let her get on with it. The hope being that in a stable environment, Nim could be taught enough ASL phrases to have coherent conversations with humans. The fact that the student, Stephanie La Farge knew nothing about primates or ASL didn’t seem to faze Terrace.
Very soon, the novelty of social experiment gave way to the novelty of ‘ooh, look darling! We have a monkey as a pet!’. Nim was breastfed by Stephanie (one of several uncomfortable comments she makes about her relationship with Nim), allowed to run up the walls, have fights with the pet Alsatian and even smoke pot and drink alcohol. With no attempts made to teach him anything or even track his progress, Nim began to display his primate tendencies and male dominance by biting the women of the household. When the experiment looked like it was beginning to crumble, Terrace gave Nim to another of his students and so began a chain of events that would eventually lead to Terrace growing tired of his experiment and handing him back to the chimp sanctuary from where he originally came. And sadly, the story didn’t end there.
Like the best documentaries, director James Marsh makes no attempt to narrate the Nim’s tragic story himself. Whilst Nim is the subject of this whole affair, it is the people that surround him that are just as interesting. Filmed against a stark background, Nim’s numerous carers and teachers (a number of with whom Terrace had affairs) share their views on the little chimp’s upbringing. Interspersed with volumes of home video footage, these talking heads are candid affairs. Fingers are pointed and blamed is passed between pillar and post. Terrace is the most interesting. Coming across like someone who wants all the glory for very little work, he sits uncomfortably throughout; remembering in vivid detail his accomplishments, but suddenly struggling to remember the things that wrong.
Nim obviously does not give much input, but through the stories told he becomes a fully rounded individual. Like any other story of someone growing up, we become present to some of his key milestones. His puberty and subsequent discovery of masturbation, his pulling of pranks so that he can get out ASL class, his increasing awareness of women and his vile temper. Whilst he was never truly human, these are all the hallmarks of your average bipedal lifeforms. It’s obvious that he was truly loved by all those he came into contact with. Despite almost tearing the cheek off one of his carers, she found herself struggling to abandon him describing it as trying to leave a violent boyfriend you deeply care for. When he attempted it a second time, you couldn’t see her for dust.
Project Nim is heartbreaking and heartwarming and then back to heartbreaking. The heartwarming moments being brought by Nim’s human friend, Bob. Bob was there when the project was abandoned and fought for Nim to be looked after properly. Balding with long hair, he looks like your atypical ex-hippy and it could possibly be easy to dismiss him with the rest of Nim’s so-called entourage. However, the love for Nim that shines out of him is brighter than anyone else on the screen. There right up until Nim’s death, when he cries, you’ll be hard pushed not to cry yourself.
Project Nim is fascinating story encompassing ethics, morality and a pinch of linguistics. It’s not often in our interests to demand you watch something, but this is truly one of those occasions. Project Nim should be watched, digested and then watched again. A chilling look at the human psyche.