With his documentary Project Nim, James Marsh never comes right out with any judgments, but the story he tells inescapably provokes consideration of the human animal’s primal nature. Marsh does so in what amounts to a biopic of a chimpanzee born in 1973: Nim Chimpsky. Beginning at the age of two weeks, Nim was raised within a human family: graduate student Stephanie LaFarge, her reluctant husband, and their three children. The notion was to treat Nim as a human child in every way, in order to test the limits of primate development, particularly of language. But as Marsh’s film recounts, the scientific method applied was sketchy at best, and the human players showed a Frankensteinian lack of forethought to the consequences of their tinkering with nature.
Project Nim is populated by a fascinating cast of conflicting characters, many of whom go on the record in new interviews. The project’s initiator and overseer Herb Terrace, a Columbia University professor, seems to have been distracted by the inextricable forces of his ego and libido. LaFarge and Terrace’s sexual ties were further complicated by the Oedipal relationship between Nim and LaFarge (the latter both breast-feeding Nim and responding to his masculine animal magnetism), and the eventual intrusion of pretty, young lab assistant Laura-Ann Pettito, who Terrace put in place for questionable reasons.
As expected, Nim made progress with American Sign Language, but how, how much, and to what significance remain points of contention. Arguably more useful lessons emerge from the ever-arching, vertiginous learning curve of the human researchers, who proved sorely unprepared for Nim’s full growth through a rocky adolescence into unpredictably violent adulthood. With new crises come changes of scenery for Nim, each move further destabilizing the animal’s mental state. The irony is thick: mistaking Nim for a human was part of the project’s folly, but disregarding his feelings was an equally damaging error (though one champion of Nim’s animal rights eventually emerges).
Nim’s behavior invariably makes the most sense; it’s his keepers who typically come off as kooky and lacking in self-awareness when jockeying for control and dominance with maneuvers that fall just short of flinging poop. LaFarge uses psychological terminology (sans objectivity) to claim that Pettito “wanted that mother role” and confesses, “I realized I was starting to lose my role.” Pettito moons of Terrace, “He had power!” and, therefore, attractiveness. Elsewhere, a researcher says of a split with Nim, “It was like breaking up with a bad boyfriend.” The line between so-called “human” and “animal” nearly blurs out of sight.
Marsh—who also helmed the Oscar-winning doc Man on Wire—bases his film on Elizabeth Hess’ book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, and he effectively draws on a thorough visual record (supplemented with slick recreations). Marsh’s sly, delicate touch nicely fits the material, which—while informative—raises more questions than it answers.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]