Star rating – 7/10
The latest documentary from James Marsh, director of ‘Man on Wire’ about daring high wire walking between the Twin Towers, is about a very different subject. ‘Project Nim’ tells of a very strange and sad experiment that took place at Columbia University in New York in the 1970s.
Psychologist Herb Terrace was trying to see if he could get a primate to string a sentence together from its own thought process, rather than just mimicking human behaviour. And so he took a new born chimpanzee from its poor mother, who had also had her previous six babies removed from her immediately after birth for other experiments, and gave it to his ex girlfriend to rear as one of her children. This could only have happened in the 70s – imagine if your ex boyfriend asked you to look after and breastfeed a chimp and treat it like a human child – and without hesitation, or any real discussion with your husband or children, you said yes.... That’s what New Yorker Stephanie LaFarge did. And she treated Nim very sentimentally as one of her children – too sentimentally really.
There were no boundaries or rules – she even breastfed Nim. She was supposed to be treating him like a child – it’s not clear from the film whether giving him alcohol and marijuana were activities her real children also engaged in, but Nim certainly did, and he liked them both quite a lot. There are very touching scenes with Nim playing happily with the family cats and other children. Then he is snatched away from the family he had developed strong bonds with, and taken to an empty mansion with a sign language teacher and Professor Herb – to develop more strong bonds that would ultimately be broken and betrayed.
Hardly any of the humans involved in this doomed and very wrong project come out of it very well at all. Especially the creepy Frankenstein like Professor Herb, who seemed to end up sleeping with every female he came into contact with. Goodness knows what they saw in a guy with such a terrible comb over but there’s no accounting for taste.
Nim learns to manipulate the humans to get what he wants – via sign language and other means. But it is always the humans who are really firmly in control of this grotesque experiment. Nim was a very strong and powerful animal – with the strength of five humans. No thought was given to the effect of the experiment on this beautiful life. This point is brought out very well by James Marsh in the film. It is ultimately a very sad tale, where a life is manipulated and played with; Nim is given a taste of human life, then relegated to an even worse reality than he started out with. And the purpose of the whole ghastly experiment – to see whether Nim can make his own sentences – is not proven either way – so it was one very sad, bad, waste of time, and much more bedsides.