That old showbiz cliché of never working with children or animals is proven to contain at least one truism in James Marsh’s Project Nim, his first documentary feature since the Oscar-winning Man on Wire (2008). As a means of further understanding the evolution of language, a scientist and his research team set out to study whether a baby chimpanzee can be taught to communicate with humans using sign language. Taking anthropomorphism to a level previously only seen in an 80s teabag advert, baby Nim is removed from his mother soon after birth, dressed in human clothes and raised as if he were a human infant by his various carers.
Marsh utilises the same tricks he employed to much greater effect in his previous feature, a film that played with the formal conventions of the heist movie to ramp up an inherent tension and develop its clear narrative through-line. He’s certainly a director adept at generating drama through filmmaking technique, albeit one who tends to push for narrative momentum at the expense of more interesting character beats. It’s the choice of focus in its telling that makes Project Nim a fascinating but frustrating watch, and whilst it’d be a hard heart that didn’t care for Nim’s fate once the initial experiment drew to a close, his subsequent rescue and rehabilitation fail to answer many of the questions posited in the film’s more interesting first half, becoming more invested in the Nim than the Project of its title as it progresses.
It’s perhaps fitting in a project seeking to address questions of communicatory evolution, that the human figures surrounding Nim should for the most part demonstrate the rules of social Darwinism to such a ruthless degree. Each appears to have an agenda of some description, or a self-serving use for Nim that extends beyond the remit of their association with the experiment. Whether it be Herb Terrace, the slimy, responsibility-shirking team leader who quickly realises that having a cute baby chimpanzee as a scientific subject is an easy way to attract young female research assistants “I didn’t set out to have women on the project, but if that’s how it turned out…”, or Laura, desperate to forward her academic career by taking control of the project away from Nim’s first carer, Stephanie, who’s “empathetic, warm… hippy mentality” initially embraced by Terrace, soon descends into a bizarre inter-species Oedipal dependence experiment of her own making.
The ultimate findings of the project itself are given little screen time, and those with which we are presented are anecdotal at best. Bob Ingersoll, a weed smoking Jerry Garcia fan and the one person in the story with his ethics seemingly intact assures us that Nim demonstrated “the capacity for higher consciousness”, but the effect of his anthropomorphisation is perhaps embedded deeper in those close to him than they would like to admit; it’s one thing to train an animal to communicate a desire to ‘eat’ or ‘play’, another to impose an understanding of the concept of forgiveness with which the film closes.
As a document of a misguided scientific folly, Project Nim works to a degree, Marsh’s determination to shape his material (and our emotional response) through heavy under-scoring proves somewhat wearing, as does the seamless integration of newly dramatised and archival footage, often making it difficult to trust exactly what you’re seeing and hearing. That said, the film is never dull, often funny and finally really quite touching, and whilst Nim may be the one with his name in the title, by the film’s close its Ingersoll who ultimately emerges as Project Nim’s unlikely hero.
Project Nim – 2011 – United Kingdom – 93 mins – Dir : James Marsh