Some Thoughts On… Project Nim (2011)

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.

REVIEW – Rubber (2010)

  Videovista have my review of Quentin Dupieux’s postmodern exploitation film Rubber.  A film that features a sentient tyre, exploding heads and a cinema audience that is force-fed poisoned turkey after spending a night alone in the desert while a tyre sits in a motel room watching TV.

While I’m not convinced that the film is entirely successful in what it sets out to do (the joke ultimately fails to sustain the film despite its short running time), this is still a hugely imaginative and ambitious piece of film-making that is unlike anything you will see in the cinema or on DVD this year:

By confronting us with the absurdity of audiences speculating about the emotional lives of apes and tires, Philibert and Dupieux are drawing our attention to the inherent absurdity of the cinematic medium: Why do we care about the characters in films? They do not exist! They are not real!


My review also points out a number of similarities between Rubber and Nicolas Philibert’s ape-based documentary Nenette (2010), which I wrote about on this very blog.

Nenette (2010) – Behind Brown Eyes

We live the entirety of our lives entombed in our skulls.  Isolated from the world by a few inches of bone, we never experience what it is like to not be in our bodies and nor do we experience what it is like to be someone else.  Not even for a second.  Tragically detached from the world, we are forever looking out and speculating as to what it might be like out there, what might be happening inside other people’s heads.  Of course, evolution has equipped us to make these inferential leaps and studies suggest that within minutes of birth, babies have already acquired a preference for looking at human faces.  As a species of pattern-matchers, we seek out our fellow humans and we try to guess what it is that they are feeling.  We read emotions on faces and infer the emotional states that might be causing them.  As our understanding of both human psychology and ourselves expand, we build complex models that help us to make sense of other people by projecting our own emotions onto the facial expressions we see around us.  We assume that other people are like us because the alternative is unbearable.  It is one thing to be entombed in our heads, but it is quite another to be completely alone.

Our skill at pattern recognition is such that all too often we generate false positives.  We look at the weather and random happenstance and we infer a form of human agency that eventually becomes belief in a supreme divine intelligence.  We look at images beamed from the surface of Mars and we see faces in the rubble.  We look at animals and we think we recognise human emotions.  We project because that is what we do.  We project because we cannot stand the idea that we are the only people feeling what it is that we feel.  We do not want to be alone in our experiences.

Nicolas Philibert’s Nenette is a documentary film that explores this desire to project ourselves out onto the world in order to make sense of it and concludes that these acts of projection say more about the person doing the projecting than the thing being projected upon.

Continue reading →