These days when we think of science we see white coats, glasses and sterile labs and for the most part these clichés are accurate, but this was not always the case. Though Project Nim is probably something of an exceptional case in the grand scheme of things it still stands as an exemplar of what science was in the seventies; and that’s sex, drugs and The Grateful Dead.
The focus of the project itself was the study of its namesake, Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was to be raised from birth as a human child in the hopes that it would one day be able to communicate with us as we communicate with each other. Primates lack the vocal chords necessary to make complex sounds like words and so this communication was to be achieved through sign language.
I’m not spoiling anything when I say that the project was something of a success; that Nim was able to master a reasonably large vocabulary of words and use these to speak to his carers. It’s not only a major scientific event and a well referenced one at that. What James Marsh manages to do with this documentary though is to show the other side of the story, the subjective impact that the experiment had on the monkey and the men involved.
Similar to the horses in Buck, Nim himself is utilized more as a reflection of the humans around him than as a character himself. For those wondering though there are plenty of cute shots of him doing cute things like playing or asking ‘Can Nim hug cat?’ and the like, this isn’t a feel good film, in fact the exact opposite. Though they may well have gone into the experiment with all the best of intentions the scientists and teachers hired to work with and thus ‘improve’ Nim quickly became a clear detriment to him. And what did we expect? After all they were only human.
Just as Buck Brannaman says we do with our steeds the scientists here loosed their own problems and perversions onto Nim: he was used as a replacement for grown-up children, for lovers, for purpose and for friends; he was breastfed, taught how to smoke a joint and explore a woman’s body and all this in the name of science. They wanted to better understand the alien psychology of the chimp but in the end all they really achieved through this experiment was exposing their own.
Though Marsh himself doesn’t oft raise the point it is more than possible to draw some scary conclusions when comparing the behaviors of the two species and this juxtaposition really makes one wonder just what it is that makes us ‘human’ and whether or not we actually should be proud of the distinction. Though Nim is far from pure in his actions – once he matures he begins to attempt asserting dominance over the scientists: biting, clawing and crushing those that stand against him – his sin is all responsive, it’s all justifiable, whereas we sought him out to toy with.
Eventually, when he becomes too strong and thus too much of a hassle the hubrical head honcho calls the experiment off and abandons Nim to a general chimp care centre – depicted here by Marsh as a veritable monkey Oz, and not the kind with Wizards – and from here on his once privileged life is further and further perverted until finally it resembles something of a waking nightmare; and this highlights, so strongly, the selfishness of science a selfishness that I myself am not immune from.
Visions of animal testing are troubling at the best of times, but seeing someone that you know going through these facilities – and I use the term someone purposefully – is nothing short of traumatic; knowing that the animal in the cage is entirely as capable of feeling and experiencing as any human being transforms the place into something out of a horror movie. I have to wonder though, is this fair? Why should I care more about Nim than I do any other animal in the place, why is this science all of a sudden much more terrifying? Funnily enough it all comes down to a concept called the MonkeySphere – which is incidentally one of my all time favourite psychological theorums, along with the white bear – which has never been depicted better than it is here.
As well as these psychological revelations the picture also introduces some interesting ideas about communication. Some scientists feel that Nim’s signing doesn’t count as true communication because it is too driven by desire; he makes the signs for food, for attention or for contact and then he receives it, thus it could be assumed that he is simply performing for reward, dancing for a carrot. Personally I don’t see how that differs in anyway from our own communications: do we not spend most of our time talking with a purpose in mind? Do we not have want’s hidden in every word? Sure our desires are perhaps a little more complex, or at least a little better hidden, but the core concept is surely the same. Nim’s first ‘mother’ also reveals that she was actively working against the teachers because she believed that language was tearing them apart, that the more he learnt to say the less they really understood each other. She was no doubt drug-addled at the time, but again this gets you thinking.
Overall Marsh has made another great documentary — his previous effort was Man on Wire – where he probably shouldn’t have been able to: His style is schizophrenic – over dramatizing the smallest moments and leaving the exciting ones to voice over -, his material is minimal – the film is mostly made up of a few photographs and some selected archival footage -, the story isn’t exactly enjoyable and the philosophy is pretty much entirely abridged and yet there is something so inherently fascinating in the concept that you simply cannot look away from the screen, somehow the whole thing somehow comes together. Now we just have to wait and see what he does for number three and hope that the apes don’t rise up before then.