OW Our World
Project NimOriginal Title: Project Nim
Director: James Marsh
United Kingdom | English
| Colour and B&W
Format: Digital Betacam
“I strongly believe that we made a commitment to him and we failed. We did a huge disservice to that soul. And shame on us.” –Joyce Butler, one of Nim’s teachers
On the surface, Academy Award-winning director James Marsh’s newest film is a biopic of a different stripe. Based on Elizabeth Hess’s wryly titled Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human
, it tells the fascinating, at times hilarious, ultimately tragic story of a chimpanzee named Nim. Shortly after his birth in 1973, Nim was taken from his mother and made the focus of a linguistics experiment. If a baby chimp were raised as though he were human, would he be able to develop language?
Nim did develop the capacity to use sign language to communicate. Through interviews with his various caregivers – all of whom develop complex relationships with him – over the course of his life, we also learn that he had complicated emotions, that he made close friends both human and chimp, that he could be playful, friendly, forgiving, petulant, manipulative and – most significantly – that his feelings were hurt when his trust was betrayed.
The most extreme emotional jolt in the film comes when Nim, no longer wanted for the language project, narrowly avoids being sold to a lab for medical research. But more broadly, the film makes the case that the linguistic research itself was bad science – poorly thought through and badly documented, it took advantage of a trusting creature and subjected him to emotional abuse from which he never fully recovered. Perhaps what Project Nim
shows us most clearly is that we humans can be just as petulant and manipulative as chimpanzees, and a good deal less forgiving. As the primate with greater power, we are often thoughtless, selfish and, at times, stupid and downright cruel.