The King Kong of ape documentaries - or is it the Oliver Twist? - Project Nim chronicles the animal wrongs perpetrated upon an anthropomorphized chimpanzee named Nim who was adopted, used, and abandoned by a series of researchers. Nim is as unforgettable as the treatment of him is unspeakable.
The film's title, a double entendre, is a clue to Marsh's perspective: To humans, Nim was a science project on whom they projected human feelings and emotions.
In 1973, the chimp was born in a research facility in Norman, Okla. When he was 10 days old, scientists shot his mother with a tranquilizer gun (as they had with her five previous chimplings) and wrested him from her arms.
Linguist Noam Chomsky had hypothesized that language was unique to humans. Setting out to disprove this, behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University professor, named the ape Nim Chimpsky.
Nim would be raised by humans, taught American Sign Language (ASL) and become the bridge between the species. The film from James Marsh (maker of the Oscar-winning Man on Wire) chronicles the arrogance of such objectives, the first two of which were realized.
(Those of a certain age might remember young Nim as the Sesame Street chimp, the one seen brushing his teeth and using sign language.)
Initially, Terrace placed Nim with the LaFarges, a wealthy Manhattan clan. He bonded with Stephanie, the mother who breast-fed (!!!), diapered, and toilet-trained him. During the day, Nim went to Columbia where researchers taught him about 125 ASL signs. His favorite one was "play."
For the humans who dressed Nim up in overalls and tucked him in at night it was hard, very hard, not to see him as a playful and affectionate toddler. Early on, Nim exhibited aggressive behavior characteristic of his species, especially toward Stephanie's husband.
Like its source material, Elizabeth Hess' Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, Marsh's film does not vilify the humans who variously loved, used, and cast off the ape. To intensify certain sequences, Marsh stages reenactments and sometimes uses animatronic chimps.
The arc of Nim's compelling story is much like that of Black Beauty, Anna Sewell's popular "autobiography" of a horse and its perspective of its different owners and contexts. Marsh does not anthropomorphize Nim.
The moral of his story is that to project human emotions on nonhuman creatures says a lot about the narcissism of people and nothing about understanding the other species.