PROJECT NIM, 2011
Stars: Bob Angelini, Bern Cohen and Renne Falitz
Tells the story of a chimpanzee taken from its mother at birth and raised like a human child by a family in a brownstone on the upper West Side in the 1970s.
There are a lot of uncomfortable questions about the use of animals in scientific testing, questions that neither pro nor anti-testing groups particularly want to address. Which is unfortunate because the strength of the scientific process is that it accepts uncomfortable answers as true regardless of whether we like those answers or not. It’s one of the few ideologies which are not just willing to but required to give away all of its foundational precepts from time to time.
But when it comes to animal testing those precepts are pretty well concentrated. On the anti- side, animal testers are seen as taking advantage of their subjects, using to their own ends and viewing them as little more than furniture or some other inanimate object without consideration for their innate nature as living beings. On the pro- side, the use of animal’s subjects is seen as a necessity for the advancement in human knowledge and abrogates the need to test humans.
The reality is both sides have their points but refuse to admit the other side does as well, preferring to draw ideological lines in the sand and refusing to budge from them. It is that space in-between which James Marsh’s documentary about the primate object of scientific curiosity named Nim.
Born in the 1970s, taken from his parents and leased to Columbia University, Nim was raised from childhood purely with humans, away from other apes. Recognizing the unique opportunity available, Professor Herbert Terrace and his grad students spent the next decade-plus attempting to teach Nim sign language to find out if 1) he would be able to communicate with them and 2) if he could teach other apes to sign as well.
The outcome of the experiment was ambiguous at best, but that is less the core of Marsh’s film than the process itself. Though simultaneously lauding the goal and the continuing approach of science, "Project Nim" opens up the experiment itself to the personalities behind it and how un-scientific they and their ideas could be.
From the beginning Project Nim, the experiment not the film, is an unfocused mess. Nim’s initial care taker is a free spirited flower child more interested in sexual psychology than language studies, who allows Nim to grow up with no boundaries and never shows the least understanding of what she is doing.
That genteel lack of understanding is a pattern which repeats and repeats throughout the film as Nim is continually passed along from one grad student to the next in a chain of caretakers and scientists without the first zoologist or ape specialist being consulted. Science has always been about those who know nothing struggling to enlighten themselves, but "Project Nim" lays bare just how frighteningly chaotic that can be.Marsh’s documentary captures every facet of that chaos through a mixture of archive material and surprisingly candid interviews from the players involved as it tracks the course of Nim’s life. Particularly interesting are the moments capturing the man at the heart of the mess, Professor Terrace. A well-meaning but isolated man, he is more interested in data than in his experiment and who keeps himself separate from it except when it can further his own professional pursuits. Terrace, our window into the world of science comes across as an absent minded parent who continually leaves scissors and knives lying about the house. His low key playing down of pivotal moments and banal reactions to major events – his reaction to finding out one of his interns was mauled by the chimp was to hope they didn’t get sued, he later forces another student out after an affair with her – are so insipid as to be frequently infuriating.
Bouncing back and forth between Terrace’s remembrances and the students who had to put them into practice become the driving force of the film and create real drama without ever being exaggerated. And lost in the middle of it all is Nim.
Eventually Terrace turns his back on the entire project and announces it a failure, having Nim packed off back to a primate colony in Africa to which he is entirely unprepared to go. Though Marsh does not try and play Nim’s life up as a tragedy it is difficult not to see it that way as we get more and more detail of the general lack of comprehension surrounding him and his development. Taken from everything he knows and raised as an experiment, Nim is tossed away as soon as he is no longer useful, with as little thought given to his future as was given to his past or present.
Those who are against animal testing to begin with will take Nim’s life as proof positive of why it should not be allowed, but that doesn’t seem to be Marsh’s aim. More he is about incompetence and the danger that comes with it, not just for the subjects but for all of us.