2011 // UK - USA // James Marsh // August 12, 2011 // Theatrical Print (Landmark Theaters Plaza Frontenac Cinema)
Numerous thematic angles present themselves for exploration in the tale of Nim Chimsky, the male chimpanzee who was taught American Sign Language as a part of a contentious Columbia University language experiment in the 1970s-80s. James Marsh’s new documentary feature, Project Nim, emphasizes the colorful characters associated with the experiment, as well as the moral conundrums that swirl around the chimp’s treatment, often to the exclusion of the story’s academic context and ramifications. How the experiment fit into the then-contemporary research landscape of linguistics and cognition is not touched upon. However, the film ably reveals the ad-hoc resourcefulness and suspect ethics that characterized the project’s day-to-day routine. From these details, a picture emerges of a research project which was seemingly blessed with resounding success, despite its disorganization and soapy conflicts. Nim’s signing vocabulary is envisioned as a line that climbs ever upward, representing the remarkable progress of a bevy of teachers, all working under the eye (and thumb) of psychology professor Herbert Terrace. However, Project Nim clearly signals through its stylistic particulars that its aim is not a celebration of the titular chimp’s intellect, but a fairly grim condemnation of the human participants.
Marsh relies upon archival materials and recreations to supplement extensive interviews with the academics and caretakers who interacted with Nim on a regular basis. The director allows his subjects to tell Nim’s story in their own words, but hardly anyone (save the chimpanzee) emerges looking particularly honorable, least of all Terrace, who projects a tweedy sort of exploitative arrogance. This suits the film’s purpose well enough, as Project Nim isn’t striving for a work of explanatory journalism or a profound rumination on language. What Marsh presents is a disconcerting tragedy about humankind’s relationship to a wild animal that it psychologically sculpted for woolly scientific ends. The film’s central criticism of the experiment only becomes evident after the project’s funding evaporates and Nim becomes too large and aggressive for the researchers to handle. The once-renowned ape is then shuttled to a succession of unpleasant confinements and abusive environments, culminating in the horrors of an NYU medical testing facility. It's all presented for maximum pathos, sometimes manipulatively so, but Marsh is not aiming for anything as prosaic as a work of animal right agitprop. The specificity of the film is the key to its emotional and moral strength. Project Nim poses that the experiment altered Nim’s development, rendering him unfit to abruptly re-enter a caged existence with his fellow chimps. While steering clear of righteous snottiness, Marsh unambiguously presents Nim’s plight as the direct result of unmet human obligations. That Nim was subject to a litany of psychological and physical abuse after he outgrew his usefulness is framed as an unforgivable disgrace, and justly so.