MFR Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★
Can a chimp learn language? Can we communicate with it using words and sentences? How much language can it learn and understand? These may have been the fascinating central questions posed by Herbert S. Terrace’s study at the centre of this new documentary, but the project ended not so much with enlightenment, but a deeply disturbing story of animal abuse.
Man On Wire director James Marsh knows how to turn a documentary into an enthralling narrative you can’t take your eyes off. Project Nim is told using a mixture of interviews, archive film and re-enactments, all effortlessly sliced together. Although I have some problems not knowing exactly what is original and what is new film (a difference which was made much clearer in Man On Wire) the story is told so well you can’t help but feel engrossed.
The documentary begins in 1973, showing Nim being snatched from his mother to take part in Terrace’s ‘experiment’, a vanity project by any other name. Immediately you realise this isn’t the slightly kooky tale of a bunch of hippies teaching a chimp something no chimp’s learned before, but something much more sinister. Terrace gives Nim to Stephanie LaFarge, a former student and lover, who has no experience of working with chimps nor zoology, besides a degree in psychology. LaFarge and her family clearly care for the chimp with genuine love and affection and with the help of several teachers, they succeed in teaching it sign language. Whether or not Nim learned language is up for debate, with Terrace dismissing it as begging but it certainly looked intelligent and it’s difficult to take Terrace’s view as gospel.
In their naivety, they raise Nim like a child, not a chimp, fueling a lifetime of neglect when it becomes too large to remain domesticated. Once Terrace receives all the information he can extract from the project, Nim is dumped and his suffering is horrifying. As a domesticated animal, Nim’s upbringing is completely disregarded in the various horrific environments and misguided rescue attempts he is thrown into and with few exceptions, the humans in his life fail to take responsibility for the chimp they’ve nurtured.
Project Nim hits far deeper than I first envisaged, looking at human responsibility, animal abuse and experimentation (both psychological and pharmaceutical). It might have a cute animal on the poster, but this is not a film for small children and it’s a 12A for a reason. Even if it clearly falls onto the side of animal rights, it avoids feeling overwhelmingly preachy or sentimental, but the film’s power packs a dark punch that really haunts you leaving the cinema.
Project Nim is out on 12th August in the UK and out now in the US (limited release). Running time: 93 mins. Certificate 12A (UK).
Review by David Rank