October 4, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 53°F


Ape activist film stays balanced

James Marsh’s “Project Nim,” a documentary about the life of a chimpanzee raised in human society, explores how researchers’ fascination with their animal subjects often impedes on them treating their subjects with respect and dignity.

Born in 1973, Nim Chimpsky — a name play on the American philosopher Noam Chomsky — is the subject of a prolonged linguistics experiment managed by researcher Herbert S. Terrace. Its goal is to discover if a primate brought up as a human, raised in homes with families and taught sign-language can develop the capacity for speech and communication. In the process, Nim’s increasingly dominant animalistic behavior clashes with the petty infighting of his many adoptive parents, which creates an environment of chaos for the experiment.

Marsh’s film treads the line between portraying Nim’s displays of empathy to his throes of violence. The chimp serves many functions to many people — a media magnet and even a smoking buddy — and is seen as an animal that should never have been removed from his mother’s arms so late in life. Marsh demonstrates that even in the absence of needles and cages, animal experimentation is inhumane, by juxtaposing Nim’s explicit animal instinct with the passive-aggressive selfishness of his “family.”

The film relies on archive footage and photography as well as recreations of settings and events that provide a sense of the chaos and drama Nim’s experienced in life. Marsh brings cinematographer Michael Simmonds and editor Jinx Godfrey’s talents together to imbue his film with a raw pathos that helps it to avoid a descent into propaganda or preaching. Taking an activist stance, Marsh’s film asks its audience to view Nim and his fellow apes in only the most fundamentally animalistic terms. This allows the audience to wonder about Nim’s empathy and violence toward the humans who raised him, while examining its own part in the inhumane treatment associated with scientific experiments on animals.

“Project Nim” takes its human subjects, and by extension humanity, to task for viewing academic intention as implicitly noble. Marsh’s film is careful to document Nim’s capacity for animalistic selfishness, but does the same with other primates featured in the documentary.

“Project Nim” was directed by James Marsh.