Project Nim is the new and masterfully realised documentary by James Marsh, the director of the celebrated film Man On Wire. It relays a chronological biography of Nim Chimpsky (a pun on the name of famous linguist Noam Chomsky), a chimpanzee who was the subject of a curious experiment conducted in the 1970s.
Taken from his mother as an infant, Nim grew up exclusively in the care of a human family and was taught to use the same sign language system as the deaf. As the first chimp to effectively communicate, indeed converse with humans, Nim led a checkered and unhappy life. He was passed from custodian to custodian, between trainers and families, photo opportunities and medical centres, living in a range of different environments (from the previous house of the US president to a dingy indoor cage in a primate house).
Project Nim is a film that really questions the ethical treatment of animals, especially during an era in which the tertiary academic environment was abuzz with liberal thinking, free love, bushy beards and an apparent lack scientific rigour. Whilst in many ways it is a sorry story which may require a Kleenex, it is also fascinating, and ultimately redemptive.
This documentary will go down particularly well with animal lovers, those with an interest in natural science, and anybody who is simply curious about the possibilities of shaping another species to be more like us. By which of course I am referring to those of us with a science fiction affinity.
Perhaps the best feature of this film is its incredible compilation of period footage, project photographs and the truly astounding testimony of every major human keeper that Nim ever had. Often the interviews with these characters turn into confessionals. As they talk admissions are made, regrets expressed, and some of Nim's trainers unknowingly show themselves to be outright deluded. A particularly funny moment is had when experiment co-ordinator Herbert Terrace insists that his perpetual wooing of his research assistants will not effect the experiment.