Oscar-winning Man On Wire director James Marsh returns to the scene of his last success: the hazy, crazy New York of the early 1970s, for another extraordinary true-life story that nearly defies belief.
Project Nim documents the life of Nim (or Nim Chimpsky to give him his full, puntastic name), a chimpanzee taken from his mother shortly after birth and raised as human in the care of a hippyish urbanite family as part of a Columbia University research project into a chimp’s capacity for language and interaction.
Using a mix of well-selected archive footage and photographs from the wealth available, dramatised recreations and contemporary talking head interviews with some of the key players, Marsh proves once again that he really knows how to stitch a compelling documentary together. He’s helped in that respect by the fascinating array of characters that touched Nim’s life, in particular Professor Herb Terrace (the behavioural psychologist and shadowy Svengali who put the project together) whose intentions for the research are never fully transparent and whose magnetism casts him as an unlikely lothario, seemingly irresistible to women willing to overlook his dodgy comb-over.
However, despite the wealth of interesting humans, this is all about Nim and raises some tough questions about the way we interact with animals. It’s difficult to imagine a time where such ill-thought-out experiments would exist without question but clearly the naivety (a charitable use of this term) of the period deemed it acceptable and the ˜nature vs. nurture’ debate is never more clear than in the case of Nim’s problems adapting to human life.
As his animal instinct kicks in and battles for dominance start, Nim embarks upon a life of near-constant disruption as his situation changes and he variously spends time in plush mansions, animal testing labs and charitable organisations. Reaching points where the events being portrayed are practically dystopian, it’s an intensely upsetting watch at times as this chimp, raised as a human, is treated with nothing but inhumanity.
A few figures emerge from the murk, such as Bob Ingersoll (a chimp facility worker who becomes Nim’s friend), whose genuine concern for Nim’s wellbeing makes a refreshing change as the film continues following the unsettling path of Nim’s life and figure after figure literally exits screen right from the tale.
The power of the film lies in the fact that Marsh has fashioned a narrative from the key players’ own words (although notably, and understandably, not Nim’s) without the need for a heavy-handed voiceover to guide you through. For all the well-honed anecdotes they might tell, many of the interviewees are exposed for their callousness and lack of regard for this creature’s life.
At times a warm reflection on the extraordinary life of this chimp, at others a chilling warning about what can happen when science goes unchecked, this is always gripping and expertly-paced stuff from a master in his field.
Project Nim will be showing at the Cameo on 18 June at 17.30 and at George Square Theatre on 20 June at 18.00. Visit the EIFF website for more details.