After wowing audiences and award panels alike with his ace debut Man On Wire, Brit director James Marsh comes up tops again with this thought provoking follow up.
Using a visual grab bag of grainy home movies, stock footage and some brand new interviews, Marsh presents us with the unique story of Nim – the furry focus of a once-in-a-lifetime experiment which occurred in the mid-seventies. The goal: to discover whether it would be possible to communicate with a chimp if it was raised as a human and taught sign language. Turns out it is, kind of…whether or not it’s morally right to do so, well, that’s a different story altogether…
Set against a very free spirited backdrop, we see Nim welcomed into the homes of a series of mother-like teachers who go all out in treating him like one of their own. They clothe him, toilet train him, even breast feed him – all the while teaching him the sign language skills necessary to see if he can form sentences and communicate with humans on an intellectual level.
However things soon turn south. The love, affection and ‘Baww isn’t he cute’ sentiments showered on Nim while he’s nothing more than a rolly ball of fluff soon run dry as he develops into an unruly, manipulative and extremely powerful adult. Nim soon becomes the equivalent of an unwanted foster child, shipped from surrogate mother to surrogate mother. It’s not long before project mastermind; the questionable Hubert S. Terrace, unconvinced that his communication experiment has been a success eventually decides to donate Nim to science.
Ironically, what sets out to be a study of primate behaviour in extraordinary circumstances instead holds up a mirror to the intricacies of human interaction. Marsh bestows Project Nim with a gift only a talented documentary filmmaker can give – impartiality. He presents the unflinching facts (and believe us, there’s a few) without painting a direct villain. Instead he allows viewers to digest Nim’s tale and decide for themselves who’s right or wrong.
It’s not always easy viewing as Nim gets chewed up and spat out by his free spirited teachers and is forced to interact with his own species for the first time. Thankfully however, his saviour soon arrives in the form of pot smoking ex-hippy Bob Ingersoll.
Ingersoll’s bond with Nim runs deep. It’s the only relationship in the doc that will leave you smiling, arguably because it’s the most human. Instead of treating Nim like a test subject Ingersoll becomes his best buddy and as a result we see Nim at his happiest.
“I can’t be a chimp,” Ingersoll tells The Playground “but I can be more of a chimp than most other humans when I allow myself to and I think that helped Nim a lot. Also, he did as much as he could to meet me in the middle so I think that may have been the key, that I was willing to get my chimpanzee on! You know what I mean?”
During his sign training, it’s isn’t long before Nim is conning his teachers into skipping class by faking toilet breaks. It could be said that he learnt just as much about us as we did about him. “Oh yeah” agrees Ingersoll, “but when you meet somebody don’t you size them up and figure out how they are and how you’re going to act and behave towards those people? I don’t think that’s any different with a chimp.
“It’s just not something you really think about – that another animal’s sizing you up the way you’re sizing up another human. I think they were surprised by that because it was the seventies and we were unwilling to give animals any kind of cred for being able to think.” Not that Ingersoll believes the experiment is worth returning to, far from it, he simply believes it was a product of its time.
Nim passed away at the age of 26. For better or for worse, a lot was learnt during his brief life. The big question was to discover what exactly was going on inside his head. Was it answered? “I dunno, that’s a good question,” ponders Ingersoll “I don’t think there was anything found about what was going on in his head. For them to expect to know what it’s like to know what Nim’s thinking and then maybe even take Nim back to Africa for him to be the bridge so they can ask him ‘Hey, what’s that chimp thinking?’ – that’s absurd and ridiculous!” he continues. “You don’t know what I’m thinking, I don’t know what you’re thinking. I know what you’re saying but humans are complex just like chimps and there’s a lot going on in our brains that we’ll just never know.”
With Project Nim director James Marsh has not only created one of 2011’s most gripping documentaries but has given those involved a platform on which to tell Nim’s tale to a new generation. It’s the perfect tribute to Ingersoll’s late friend. “James is a story teller and he does a damn good job at it,” he gushes, “I was moved to tears the first twenty something times I saw it and I can’t watch the whole film without tearing up in certain sections.
“I think I could watch it ten thousand times and in those particular sections I’m going to cry every time. A big movie does that; it moves you inside and makes you think about things that you wouldn’t normally think about. It sticks with you, it doesn’t go away. To me Nim’s still alive, he hasn’t gone away. He’s not hear physically on the planet but his spirit will never leave.”
Words and interview by Simon Bland.
Project Nim hits cinemas on August 12th.