Project Nim is without a doubt one of the oddest science documentaries you’ll ever see. It is the biopic of Nim, the first chimpanzee who was taught sign language. Despite his rudimentary knowledge, Nim learned over 120 words in sign, Nim is unable to speak for himself and so we are told his story by a cast of eccentric characters who took it upon themselves to attempt to break the language barrier between man and beast. Scientists? Kind of.
Like the hippie commune in Easy Rider, this experiment had the best intentions and terrible results. The project was initiated by Professor Herbert Terrace, a remarkably callous behavioral psychologist with a comb over and habit for sleeping with his students and lab assistants. Terrace, not inclined to raise the chimp himself, turns baby Nim over to Stephanie LaFarge, a former student and lover who knows nothing about chimps or sign language for that matter. Terrace’s instructions? Raise Nim as a human child.
So LaFarge, a self-proclaimed hippie, raises the child just like any other, breast feeding him and letting him smoke pot and run wild without discipline. Thus begins Nim’s life amongst people. And for a time it is good. He gets to live in a mansion, he learns lots of things no chimp has learned before such as using a toilet. He becomes famous as the chimp who can sign and Professor Terrace is happy to become famous too. Nim plays with idealistic Columbia University students until he attacks them and puts them in the hospital, for he is still a chimp. Professor Terrace is either oblivious or indifferent to these attacks and replaces the mauled students with fresh-faced new ones (literally fresh-faced, one student from the project claims to have had a hole in her cheek for three weeks after an attack). And then with the experiment complete, Nim, the beast that learned to speak, is sent off to the chimp farm where his life spirals into a increasingly severe, hellish misery.
Project Nim is the story of the ethical questions raised by animal testing, but in this case the test is to raise a chimpanzee as a human child. Though done with the best of intentions the result is as painful to Nim as the more literal medical tests he is later forced to endure.
The film is great. Made by the Oscar winning team of 2008s Man on Wire, the film will make you laugh and if not cry, at least feel very bad. The shortcomings of the film from a journalistic perspective are frustrating. Nim cannot speak for himself and so his opinions are given to us by those who knew him best. The reports are conflicted to say the least. Of the wide variety of living situations Nim endured, from his faux-human upbringing to living amongst other chimps in cages, were any of them preferable? Did these pioneers create a monster? Did they create a chimp who would forever be isolated, even when surrounded by members of his own species? The voice in this film that could shine a light on these concerns is limited to You Give Banana Me Me Banana.
Project Nim opens on July 8th in New York and Chicago, more cities on July 15th.