It’s not often that a documentary can be called highly anticipated but “Project Nim,” the latest from the Oscar winning “Man On Wire” team (director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn), certainly qualifies. The doc was a smash when it played at Sundance earlier this year and it sees the filmmakers returning to the 1970s to take on an entirely different incredible but true story. The film tells the tale of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was the subject of a landmark experiment to see if an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. This study was the brainchild of Dr. Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University behavioral psychologist who hoped to teach Nim enough language that he could eventually express what he was thinking and feeling. This would refute Noam Chomsky‘s thesis that language is inherent only in humans, hence his moniker, a direct pun on the famous linguists’ name.
To conduct the study, baby Nim is taken from his mother and given to Stephanie LaFarge, a former psychology student of Dr. Terrace’s who is already raising several children of her own on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She raises Nim as if he were one of her own, even breastfeeding him regularly without a second thought. She doesn’t keep journals or notebooks of Nim’s progress learning sign language and in fact, at first doesn’t even know it herself. But eventually there is progress made as Nim begins to pick up a variety of simple signs for eating, playing or showing affection. Things are very casual and loving in the LaFarge household, Stephanie even lets Nim smoke pot, and for a while their strange family unit seems to make sense. Nim is playfully antagonistic towards Stephanie’s husband, but it’s not until later that things start to become a problem.
As Nim grows older his animal nature becomes harder to suppress and though he was still playful, he could also quickly turn very dangerous and attack even those closest to him. But Nim’s time with the LaFarge family is only the first chapter in his story that sees him being transferred from one caregiver to the next before eventually ending up in both an animal testing facility and animal sanctuary. It’s a tragic story not just because of what happens to Nim but for his many caregivers too who become emotionally attached to the chimp and are often punished for this. There comes a moment late in the film when Stephanie returns many years later to visit Nim at the sanctuary and you’re forced to wonder whether he blames her for his circumstance. It’s questions like these that keep you invested in the film: where is the line between man and ape?
Like “Man On Wire,” the film tells its story utilizing a mix of new interviews, archival footage and seamlessly integrated recreations so you’re never pulled out of the narrative. Marsh and cinematographer Michael Simmonds seem to have their method of storytelling down to a science, fluidly moving the camera in and out of interviews as new characters are introduced. The story is told in an entirely linear fashion so characters weave in and out of the film in the same order in which they enter and leave Nim’s life. So you shouldn’t expect to see his earlier “mothers” commenting on later behavior. The filmmakers want you to be right there with the action which leaves behind the film’s biggest problem.
The film is engrossing at first but becomes a little repetitive as each of Nim’s caregivers follows a similar pattern. Also interesting is that for a science experiment, everyone involved seems incredibly naive. Dr. Herbert Terrace, in particular, seems so clueless you never really have any faith in the experiment to begin with. The interviews with Dr. Terrace unfortunately seem to almost give away early on that this will not end well for Nim. If Dr. Herbert could have seduced the audience into believing in him it would have made the narrative even more thrilling (and tragic) as the film went along. But because we never believe for a second that he’s intellectually capable of holding the experiment together (he seemed to choose Nim’s teachers based on which grad students he was interested in dating at the time) it becomes an exercise in the inevitable.
It’s still a fascinating story and one you’re likely to think could have only happened during the carefree 1970s. The film plays almost like a mystery, where the audience is constantly reexamining their own views on Nim. Is he capable of regret? Or empathy? Or is he just manipulating his caregivers to get what he wants? The filmmakers and interview subjects may both have different answers to this question and it’s likely that audience members will be split as well. But this smart documentary should prove the perfect summer antidote to most of summer’s films that require you to turn your brain off to enjoy them. Or at the very least, it’s an excellent prequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” [B]