Project Nim

A documentary from the makers of Man on Wire makes for uncomfortable viewing

Project Nim is the latest documentary from the Oscar-winning team behind 2008’s Man On Wire. It tells the story of a team of American research scientists and their pet project, Nim, a chimpanzee who became the focus of a landmark experiment in the 1970s.

That experiment aimed to either prove or disprove that a chimpanzee could be taught to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Project Nim captures the process, which becomes uncreasingly unsettling, and the bizarre array of people who set it in motion.

The story begins in November 1973, when Nim is born in a primate research centre based in Oklahoma. He is soon removed from his mother's care, who, sadly, has had to endure a succession of her offspring being taken from her for similar scientific observation.

Nim is placed with his new ‘mother’, Stephanie LaFarge, a psychology student with a young family who has agreed to take part in ‘Project Nim’ at the behest of her former tutor, Professor Herbert Terrace, who is spearheading the experiment.

In the early stages of the film it is easy to be seduced by the saccharine home footage of the young chimp hanging out with his new playmates, fooling around with the dog and generally having a good time. However, it is LaFarge’s commentary – as she recalls the period in which she acted as mother to Nim – that makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Coming across as a perennial 1960s hippy, the erstwhile sex therapist makes much mention of her close relationship with the young chimp, who she allowed to explore her body. In this respect the mother/child relationship is ignored, and an unconvincing dialogue on the Oedipus complex is opened by LaFarge and Terrace.

This intellectualising grates after a while. Indeed when Jenny Lee, LaFarge’s daughter, proclaims mirthfully that 'It was the 70s!', it’s near impossible not to feel some degree of anger at what is essentially an exercise in cruelty.

Eventually, and unsurprisingly, Nim outgrows his human family. He becomes physically too strong and is transferred to a more controlled atmosphere at a mansion owned by the university in which Terrace works. From there he is sold into medical research.

 

As the humans in Nim’s life become pitted against each other, the conflicting narratives are exposed as neither side are able to see the big picture: that Nim belongs to neither of them, but rather to nature itself.

Fortunately, director Marsh does not guide the viewer’s opinions – we are allowed to digest this strange story based on archive footage and contemporary interviews.

Like his work on Man On Wire, Marsh is adept at using the evidence at his disposal to edit together a dispassionate film that manages to rouse the audience without pushing them in any one direction.

In Nim’s case it is the story of an academic’s vanity project fostered in a counter-cultural atmosphere that used ‘scientific interrogation’ as a barely veiled excuse for what was essentially self-serving hedonism.

Project Nim runs at the QFT from September 2.

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