Beginning to write about James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim, it becomes tempting to immediately spring into all-out praise mode. Marsh approaches stories from different angles. 2008’s Man on Wire functions as a heist narrative. Project Nim is a chimpanzee biopic. Herb Terrace’s experiment was amateurish and botched from the start. By default, this allows Marsh to focus all his energies on telling Nim’s heartbreaking story, using archival footage and some very honest and candid interviews by the many people who came in and out of Nim’s life.
James Marsh clearly wants to tell stories that are special; tales that one does not hear every day. The year is 1973 and Professor Herb Terrace, a behavioral psychologist of Columbia University, wants to conduct an extended study on the potential communication between species. The idea is to take a chimpanzee and bring it up as a child. This includes no contact with its own kind, eventually teaching it sign language. He asks a woman named Stephanie LaFarge to take Nim in. She is delighted to, being the free-spirited hippie that she is, as well as a wife and mother of several children.
The problematic nature of the experiment shows itself right off the bat. It becomes clear how undeveloped the project is, and that the two people involved at this point, are coming from different directions. Herb Terrace is the straight-out villain of the piece. Marsh does not even have to try hard to mold him into this role. The archival footage, his interview footage, and the comments made from the other interviewees are more than enough to see the kind of guy Terrace is. He is media-obsessed and craves professional recognition, as well as the female researchers he works with. LaFarge develops a deep connection with Nim, as she was there from the beginning when he was taken away from his mother. She breast-feeds him and lets him become a bona-fide member of the family, much to the annoyance of her husband.
In comes Laura, a young research student whom Terrace appoints to start babysitting Nim. She creates a schedule for him to, you know, actually start using sign language (something any competent individual would have implemented from the beginning of the study). Lafarge does not want this, believing he should be let alone. Eventually, Terrace and Laura turn against LaFarge and take Nim away from her. This only takes us about twenty-five minutes into the film. It is only the first of many parts of Nim’s journey. From here on out, Nim travels from place to place and is only visited by Terrace when he has photographers with him. Since these are the only people in Nim’s life, they become all he knows, only to be repeatedly taken away. Things take a turn for the worse when the project ends, and Nim is placed in LEMSIP, a medical research facility. There is a lot that happens before, during and after LEMSIP, but I will let viewers discover this sad and amazing tale on their own.
Project Nim is structured as a biopic that allows us to be acquainted with Nim as well as understand our incapacity to truly know a wild animal. All of the action is focused around the chimp, but the film says so much more through the story it tells. It is about humanity and our need to control and manipulate everything to be more like us. It is about the incompetence of man. It is about the well-meaning individuals like Joyce Butler, who care so deeply but are powerless in the bigger picture, and those like Bob Ingersol and Dr. James Mahoney, who never give up on making a difference.
Would the study have worked if it had actually been organized or well-conceived? Questions start lingering in the mind and are brought up as the film draws to a close. Regardless of the level of competency involved, should this study have ever happened? The film takes on communication and asks what the study could have taught us. Ingersol and several others achieved something very meaningful with Nim, (which was clearly coming from both sides, not from humans misguidedly anthropomorphizing him) but not just because of the sign language; there was a deeper connection taking place. At the same time, there was no communication happening between the adults, who were supposed to understand exactly what this project was. That Nim was communicating with humans is impossible to deny, but the achievements of the project are so debatable and so poorly recorded that it can only be deemed inconclusive. Terrace, in his conception of Project Nim, fails to take into account that while chimps have human qualities, they also have ‘˜chimp’ qualities. This becomes a huge obstacle very early on.
Nim is a chimpanzee; not a human. He has two to six times the strength of man and does not know it. He is unpredictable and capable of just about anything. Raising Nim as a child can theoretically work when he is very young. Once he starts growing, there are so many other considerations to take into account that are damaging to both Nim, and the people around him. There are several incidents recounted in the film that prove this as we briefly tiptoe into Planet of the Apes or Monkey Shines territory.
Many documentaries have a person at its center that, by the end, one should have a sense of. That James Marsh is able to do this with every talking head is remarkable. The interview subjects in documentaries rarely stand out as individuals; our job is to get information from them. The many people who were involved with Nim all shine through as distinct personalities. Almost all of them are willing to be impressively open and honest about Nim and their experiences and regrets. That Nim changed all of their lives is all too clear; most of them get emotional at one point, and the lucidity with which they talk about Nim makes it feel like it happened much more recently than it did. The subjects are shot in front of a grey background. The camera pans left or right when they make their entrance and exit from the story, which nicely visualizes the fact that so many people went in and out of Nim’s life.
Something that stands out in Project Nim is the way all the issues addressed (communication, animal-rights issues, nature of man, power struggles, etc.) is done indirectly, and through the telling of Nim’s story. For a film that asks so many questions, it is natural to assume the film is too crowded and trying to tackle too much. But the film only directly has one goal; to tell the story of Nim through the structure of a biopic. It is through this that everything else comes naturally to light, and is evident through the events and interviews.
There is humor in Project Nim, as he is shown in suits, doing somersaults as he indulges in his affection for cats and is given joints to smoke. There is charm in seeing a chimp treated as a human that is naturally appealing and is amusing. This all gives way to despair. By the end of his story, Nim is bitterly angry and resigned. He has given his trust to humans too many times and they have let him down. In an incident late in the film, LaFarge goes to visit him at his latest location after not having seen him for many years. She can see he is not a baby anymore; he is no longer cute. He is gaunt and ragged. She says she felt no connection with him. A comment like this shows that even the humorous moments, which are entertaining and lighten the mood, mean something more. The amusement that comes with a baby chimp only prolongs the true nature of the beast. LaFarge’s visit showed her what they were dealing with right from the beginning; a wild animal. Those who see Project Nim will be heartbroken. It works on many different levels, but people will remember first and foremost the story of Nim’s unstable life. James Marsh has told an unforgettable story and Project Nim is a true accomplishment.