Project Nim (2011)
James Marsh

Project Nim

Project Nim (2011), directed by James Marsh of Man on Wire (2008) fame, gives to us the life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee at Columbia University that was being trained to communicate in sign language, as narrated by Dr. Herbert Terrace (the head of the project) and his team of trainers. We see the animal being taken away from his mother by force, brought up along with human children at one of Terrace’s friends’ home, transferred back to the university, sold to a drug-testing facility and, finally, to a private ranch. We witness the devastating tragedy of Nim’s life, as he is deracinated, trained for years to become human-like only to be expected, subsequently, to behave like chimpanzee. Throughout, there is an ambivalence based on the nature versus nurture question that we experience: Is Nim’s rapid learning curve an indication of the dominance of social relations in shaping communication or is his random acts of violence a clinching proof for the presence of an innate animal essence? The interviewees describe their relationship to Nim in very human terms and one wonders if some of it is not the projection of their own anthropomorphic understanding of the animal’s behaviour. Consequently, Nim becomes something of a MacGuffin that everybody is talking about, but no one knows what it exactly is. The film’s sympathies clearly lie with the animal, to such an extent that it refuses to see the complexity of the situation. Abstracting scientific research as animal cruelty, the film fails to take into account the more pressing issues that are being addressed by such projects. To add to this gross simplification, Marsh’s questionable fictional restaging of facts and regular use of unrelated footage in order to prevent the film from becoming a talking-heads documentary betrays a lack of faith on the material and an unwarranted fear that a straightforward presentation would be ‘uncinematic’.