Starring Stephanie LaFarge, Herb Terrace and Bob Ingersoll. Directed by James Marsh. 93 minutes. PG
Raising a baby chimpanzee as a human child in the hopes that it will grow up to learn sign language and communicate with humans. No, it’s not Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but it might as well be science fiction. Unfortunately, this experiment was very much real, and as James Marsh’s heartrending documentary Project Nim details, revealed far more about human nature than its primate subject.
Marsh, whose previous documentary Man on Wire won the 2009 Academy Award for best documentary, has said that getting certain people to discuss the project was a challenge. This really isn’t surprising considering what his film reveals about a team from Columbia University that decided, in 1973, to conduct an extensive study on animal language acquisition. Scientist Herb Terrace–who led the group–set out to prove that if an ape could be raised as a human child and taught sign language, it would be able to communicate with humans (ideally through sentences), and offer various insights into the animal psyche.
The unsuspecting participant in Terrace’s study was Nim, a chimpanzee born in November 1973 and, at just two weeks old, taken from his mother, and placed in the care of wealthy New Yorker Stephanie LaFarge. Raised as one of her bohemian brood in an uptown Brownstone, Nim soon grew from curious, playful baby into a rambunctious “preteen” that had complete control of his guardian’s home. Attempting to instill more discipline and structure to the project, Terrace transferred Nim to a secluded university-owned estate where he was put under the care of various teachers.
Marsh’s style of narrative documentary, which has drawn comparisons to Werner Herzog’s, is highly stylized. The filmmaker tells Nim’s story chronologically, introducing the figures in his life with large, artistic titles and quickly moving between these characters. Because all aspects of Project Nim were so well documented by the team, Marsh’s film provides ample photographs and video footage from Nim’s life, while also recreating various scenarios using actors.
But once the documentary begins to explore Nim’s life at the estate, its tone grows darker, aligning with increasingly grim realities. Two years into the project, Nim had successfully grasped sign language and was communicating effectively, even garnering the attention of the media (a young David Suzuki is one of the journalists featured in the documentary), but he had also grown physically and didn’t know his own strength. The dangers of receiving a bite from Nim–which could easily hit a nerve or artery–are discussed at length by the teachers, all of whom point out various scars.
As Project Nim unravels, questioning both the ethics of raising an ape among humans, and the motivations of the people involved in the project, it becomes clear that this isn’t a neutral retelling of a science experiment gone horribly wrong, but rather a provocative commentary on humans and the outcomes of a misguided quest for greater scientific knowledge. Marsh’s approach to Nim’s story is unapologetic in its depictions of those who surrounded him, as well as Nim himself, who is portrayed, at times, as a very real danger to his guardians. Ultimately, it’s this unrelenting honesty, combined with engaging visuals and narrative style, that draws audiences into a story that’s stranger than fiction, and compels us to question our own humanity. A