Last year, the French documentarian Nicolas Philibert produced Nenette (2010), a film that used footage of an orang-utan and recordings taken in a zoo to demonstrate the human tendency to project human emotions onto animals. Nenette also demonstrated that human speculations about the inner lives of apes tend to tell us a lot more about the humans than they do about the apes. James Marsh’s latest documentary Project Nim ploughs much the same furrow by exploring the attempt by a group of 1970s scientists to teach a chimp to sign.
Project Nim focuses upon the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was removed from his mother and brought up by humans in an attempt to see if treating a chimp like a human might encourage him to think and communicate like one. Initially, Nim is entrusted to the care of a wealthy hippy family whose laid-back approach to parenting results in Nim effectively taking control of the house. Concerned that the chimp is getting what he wants through social dominance rather than by acquiring language skills, the project director Herbert S. Terrace removes Nim from his surrogate family and places him in the care of a group of specialised teachers. While these teachers manage to imbue Nim with an incredibly rich vocabulary, the older Nim becomes, the harder it is to control him. When Nim bites his teacher’s face, Terrace decides to end the project and place the chimp in a research facility where his life gets progressively worse.
The foreground of the documentary is devoted to a somewhat uneven engagement with the project’s ethical standards. Terrace is depicted as a shameless opportunist who uses both his students and Nim to build an academic career before cutting both adrift without a moment’s hesitation or regret. While this foreground narrative produces a number of touching moments, it is fatally undermined by Marsh’s bizarre insistence upon reminding us that Nim is a wild animal who should not be thought of in human terms. The result is a film that coaxes its audience into empathising with a chimp before slapping them down for doing precisely this. Mercifully, the film’s background proves far more rewarding.
Stepping back from the details of Nim’s life, Project Nim does an absolutely brilliant job of conveying the weirdness of 1970s academic culture. For example, Nim’s original foster family included a woman who breast-fed Nim and then allowed the chimp to ‘explore her body’ as part of her informal personal research into the Oedipus complex. Predictably enough, once Nim is transferred to the care of a group of scientists, they follow the original foster mother in using Nim as a vehicle for their own desires and ambitions. One ambitious graduate student wrestled control of Nim’s education from the foster family as a means of acquiring Terrace’s attention, this lead to a brief affair that resulted in one dumped graduate student and one chimp deprived of a mother-figure. The more figures from Nim’s life the film introduces, the more obvious it becomes that while everyone was eager to do what was best for Nim, their assessments of what was ‘best’ usually depended upon what was convenient for them. This is particularly obvious in the case of Terrace whose termination of the project results in Nim being sold for medical research. His charge cast into the outer darkness, Terrace promptly produced a book in which he argues that Nim was nothing more than a hugely accomplished beggar who never really understood the language he was using. Unsurprisingly, the humans who come across as most sympathetic are the ones whose visions of Nim emphasise his human characteristics. Particularly sympathetic is the Dead Head primate handler who treats Nim as just another pot-smoking fellow traveller.
The fact that our sympathies tend to lie with those who treat Nim like a person rather than an animal says a lot about our own empathic tendencies and the film’s capacity for inviting us to fall into the same trap as Nim’s original handlers. However, as clever as this manipulation may be, the film’s refusal to engage with empathic projection head-on results in frustratingly lightweight fare. Yes, we extend empathy to a chimp because the chimp behaves like a human but so what? What does this say about us? What does it mean for our relationships to animals as a whole? Are we wrong to treat animals as humans or are those who treat chimps like animals unethical monsters? Project Nim tries to address some of these questions without getting bogged down in the sort of heavy philosophical speculation that might alienate audiences but by raising questions in such an oblique fashion and then failing to develop them in any meaningful way, Project Nim only manages to remind us of quite how much can be achieved with footage of an orang-utan and the sound of zoo visitors wildly projecting their own worries onto the indifferent figure of an ape.