If the story of a chimp raised by humans told in Project Nim sounds vaguely familiar to the blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there’s a good reason for that. The screenwriters for Rise were well aware of Nim, the chimp whom scientists wanted to see if they could teach sign language as he was raised like a human. Spoiler: Project Nim does not end with an ape uprising that culminates in one terrific battle on the Golden Gate bridge.
Why some people are willing participants in documentaries, at times offering unbelievable access into their lives, can be mind boggling. Project Nim has no shortage of those who baffle with their willingness to document their involvement in the pseudo-science they practiced on Nim – Nim Chimpsky if we want to get formal.
Nim was removed forcefully from his mother at a tender age by scientist Herbert Terrace and handed over to one of Terrace’s students, Stephanie LaFarge, who was to raise Nim in her upper class Manhattan home as one of her children and teach him sign language. Never mind the fact that LaFarge didn’t have any knowledge of chimpanzees or know sign language. Things get better for entertainment purposes from there for us the viewers but much worse for Nim. LaFarge’s husband does not like the chimp, the feeling is mutual. We learn of raids on the husband’s bookshelves when no one is looking and nips on the fingers when dad tries to make nice with his newly adopted “son”. LaFarge not only doesn’t know much about raising chimpanzees, she also doesn’t seem to know much about discipline, as she shows little to no discipline to a spoiled ape in the making. She also doesn’t have much common sense as she gives Nim beer to drink and joints to smoke. I’m not a zoologist but I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to give animals either of those substances.
Nim learns sign language and wastes no time using it to manipulate the humans in his life. Meanwhile, the scientist (Terrace) who started this mad experiment takes a mostly hands off approach. His closest moments with Nim are when there is a photo shoot or PR win to be had, otherwise it’s made clear that he has little interest in being fully engaged.
Inevitably Nim turns into an aggressive adolescent ape who acts out against his handlers. He’s a wild animal who has been raised like a child with little restraints. Those involved seem shocked as they retell events that include Nim nearly tearing one side of a handler’s cheek off. Even in these moments Nim uses sign language to his advantage. He signs “sorry” and takes off. Whether he is sorry for his actions or he’s learned a system he knows how to game is hard to tell – he’s an ape after all. One thing becomes clear though, the chimp has more brains than the humans surrounding him.
The latter half of Nim’s life is spent traveling from home to home until he finally ends up in an ape sanctuary. Unlike Caesar, Nim doesn’t learn the ropes and eventually lead an ape rebellion. He settles in for a lonely existence as an ape who is not like his peers yet can never be considered a pet.
Unlike the director’s previous documentary, Man on Wire, James Marsh doesn’t push the genre to new heights. He instead lets those involved tell the story through candid interviews, mixing in at times fascinating archival footage. The end result is a strong narrative with less engaging character development. If only Nim could talk. One can only imagine what he’d have to say.
Final thought: Is that one of the most hideous looking DVD covers of all time?