Director James Marsh of the fascinating 2008 film, Man On Wire, this time gives us jolt of clarity into our ‘playing God’ actions, one filled initially with both hope then despair that ultimately makes you ashamed to be human. Unfortunately for Project Nim, it has the sci-fi action adventure, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, to go head-to-head with this week at the box office. But this documentary film ought to be seen before the latter for full effect of man’s meddling with nature. Nim will give audiences some perspective of what has actually happened in history; in exploring the nature verses nurture theory.
Project Nim tells the story of a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky who was taken from his captive mother at birth in the 1970s and raised like a human child by a New York family (the LaFarges) then scientists, including project leader Herbert (‘Herb’) S. Terrace, in order to determine whether nurture affected nature and his ape-like tendencies. Sadly for Nim, aged 5, his natural instincts were to jeopardize the whole project and his own future existence.
Taking a mixture of on-camera interviews with all those involved in the project, grainy real-life footage and reconstructed scenarios, Marsh makes sure his ‘anti-hero’ primate Nim is fully empathised with from the start. He has his off moments with his handlers, but because of his unnatural controlled environment, these are soon forgiven. The rest is an uncomfortable, finger-pointing reveal of all the humans involved in the landmark project as to who is to blame for Nim’s shocking end neglect. It could be argued how different it might have been, had the LaFarge family been allowed to keep him the whole time, with Stephanie LaFarge having breast-fed and bonded with him from a baby. Marsh merely lets the comments from his interviewees drive the next episode of the story, but there are hints as to his own opinions.
Indeed, you do feel some sympathy for some of his ‘teachers/signers’ who were successful in speaking to him via signing, but had to watch their hard work being undone. The interesting thing is was this through Nim’s evolving nature or the intense nurturing lessons in small white-cell-like rooms that were to lead to tragic events. Was this whole experiment even compromised from the start? The very nature of the beast is Nim’s aggressive instincts of challenging the dominant male in a group broke through around the aged of 5, putting lives at risk.
Teacher Bob is the human saviour of the hour, a passionate ape lover and vocal critic, eventually blocked from seeing Nim when he ends up in a privately run animal sanctuary. However, like Bob, you feel a real sense of having let Nim down, especially when he begins pacing his cage with a haunted look in his eye. The real tragedy is even more apparent when Nim finally gets the primate company he so deserves then dies shortly after from a heart attack. It tugs at the heartstrings and taps into our inner animal-loving tendencies.
Marsh has deliberately made an uncompromising and unsettling account of Nim’s story to challenge us on our thoughts on animal experimentation, ultimately. In our quest to always ‘humanise’ primates in a cute, circus-style fashion, a life was at stake. On the other hand, without such pioneering science, how does the study progress? It’s a tricky predicament that will have you taking sides, never sitting on the fence.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE