Film Review: Project Nim

What would happen if you allowed some people to play god?  If you think anything about it would work out well, you’re wrong.

Project Nim is the heartbreaking and yet infuriating story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee taken from his mother at only 2 weeks old and raised as a human child.  All in the name of a scientific experiment to supposedly discover if apes could develop linguistic skills, through the use of sign language, to communicate fully with humans.

Sound a bit bizarre? Surreal? Like a first draft of the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes movie?  This actually happened and this is a documentary about it.

Herbert S. Terrace is the catalyst for this saddening story.  He somehow got the funding to conduct this experiment on behalf of Columbia University and he recruited a raft of people who would be part of Nim’s life until the experiment ceased.

Told using talking heads, home movie footage and photos with minimal reconstructions, the documentary follows Nim’s life from the point his mother is drugged so he can be taken away in the early 1970’s through to his death, some 26 years later.

It’s the sort of story that makes you question mankind’s own abilities to be humane and what humane actually means.  This abhorrent and callous experiment as told by those involved with seemingly clear conscience almost defies belief were it not for the myriad of real footage and testimony in this film.

The film has a sense of objectivity about it, in that the talking heads seem to be naturally telling their tales and the footage is shown as matter of fact rather than with a particular slant or style.  To be fair to those giving testimony, the genuinely seem to be telling it like it was, as uncomfortable as that may be.

The film shies away from sensationalism – it could have easily become judgemental and gone for the shock factor.  After all it is a sensational story.  But, then perhaps those involved would not have been so keen to recall their time with Nim.

Despite the fact Nim does not, obviously, get his say, as the film develops, so does the viewers’ perception of Nim’s character.  I, personally, got a real sense of the confusion he must have felt at all that conflicts between what he was conditioned to do and what his natural instincts were.  He was essentially, as the title suggests a project: not a pet, not a companion, certainly not a human, but unfortunately barely an ape either.

A couple of people do come out with some credit, or at least redemption: a guy who worked at an animal experimentation lab who went on to rescue as many apes as he could when the lab closed and Bob, the guy who seems to be one of the driving forces behind this film being made who seemed to truly believe Nim was his companion: the scene where he is reunited with Nim will test even the steeliest resolve.

Herbert – the guy who started it all – and his cronies don’t come across very well, other than to admire them for their honesty at least.  There is an implied undercurrent of seediness about him and his cohorts with much made of hippy values and pot smoking and sexual freedom…none of which should a child be subjected to (if Nim were to be raised as such), but for some reason because Nim is an ape and this is an experiment, it’s ok.

It’s hardly surprising that the wheels come off the experiment more than once although bizarrely it is heartbreaking to see the project end.  In spite of everything, this experiment was all that Nim knew and removing him from it does feel sad because what will then become of Nim?  This, for me, draws massive parallels with how a child in an unsafe family environment might feel when taken out of that environment: it’s all they know and understand, so what will become of them?

The film works on many levels and had a real impact on me – I think this will stay with me for a long time and whilst not something I would call entertainment, I do feel the subject matter, more than the film, has an important place in history.

My Rating: 4/5

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