From the Oscar-winning team behind MAN ON WIRE comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Following Nim’s extraordinary journey through human society, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature – and indeed our own – is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling.
From director James Marsh (Man on Wire), Project Nim is the touching story of Nim Chimpsky, who made headlines in the 1970s as the adorable centre of a fashionably utopian project to teach sign-language to a chimpanzee. Dreamed up by behavioural psychologist and academic dandy Herbert Terrace, Project Nim seemed to conjure up the open-minded spirit of the age until it was derailed by the individual self-interests of its leading members, and Marsh’s documentary is less a study of primate psychology than a work of social anthropology that marks--like Watergate, Vietnam and the rise of the free market--the loss of 1960s idealism and the arrival of the newly self-centred 1970s. Terrace recruits a team of young researchers--overwhelmingly female and attractive--who take confused Nim into their sun-baked New Jersey homes where, between lessons at Columbia University, he enjoys a new-age attitude towards booze, cannabis, nudity and the occasional breastfeed. But with a growing public interest in this mediagenic piece of popular science, Project Nim erupts into a bitter power struggle, fuelled--as Terrace reveals, without so much as a blush--by a series of bracingly unethical sexual relationships. Meanwhile: poor Nim. For all the in-fighting over the central maternal role in his development, Nim ends up simultaneously denatured and unable to live up to the humanity projected onto him. Given a theatrical release in the same week as 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes--another product of the 1970s--Project Nim is a real-world counterpart to that franchise’s satire of our assumption of the central position in nature--and plays with the obvious irony of Ivy League academics getting far more tribal, competitive and libidinous than the chimp they're trying to civilize. By the end of Project Nim, you're unsure which species is aping which. --Leo Batchelor