Pixar and Disney have created impossible expectations of animal behaviour. Their wisecracking, easygoing communities of monkeys, snakes and giraffes conjure worlds that are much more fun and exotic than real life. Even in the more regrettable non-animated animal-themed films such as Dunston Checks In, our furry friends are there to provide light relief from the cruel schemes of insensitive humans.
In the real world, of course, animals don’t wisecrack; but humans remain cruel and insensitive. That much is made clear in Project Nim, a new documentary by James Marsh, director of the award-winning Man on Wire. Project Nim was an experiment devised by Herb Terrace, a professor at Columbia University who wanted to see whether a chimp—the hilariously named Nim Chimpsky—could be “civilised” and taught to communicate with humans via sign language.
Nim gets caught up in the human politics of the experiment, which mainly concern Herman’s sexual predilections towards a rotating cast of female research assistants. Predictably the film focuses more on what the project says about us than what it says about the chimp. Nim’s life is shaped by periodic abandonment and exploitation. His formative years are spent in a hippy household in New York, where he is indulged by Stephanie, a former sexual partner of Terrace who nevertheless rejects the scientific strictures of schedules and charts of progress. Nim revels in this oh-so-70s hedonism, enjoying road trips, booze and the occasional joint.
So far, so fun. But this prelapsarian phase had its worrying aspects which suggest the project’s bohemian attitude went a little far. In one of the interviews, Stephanie has to reject the notion that there were sexual undertones to her relationship with Nim. That she denies the possibility of sexual tension because “Nim was a pre-teen,” and not because he was a chimp, is just plain weird.
Science intervenes, however, and Nim’s journey takes a darker turn. He is taken to a mansion for round-the-clock language training, and soon starts showing signs of real progress. Yet he remains a chimp, five feet tall and five times stronger than the average man. He becomes violent and dangerous, leaving scarred researchers in his wake. Dismissing Nim’s language skills as elaborate begging, Herb pulls the plug and sends the helpless chimp to prison-style lodgings at the Institute for Primate Studies (IPS) in Oklahoma. From there, things only get worse for Nim.
It is a touching and tragic story, from which no human emerges all that well. Except, that is, for Bob Ingersoll, a pot-smoking Grateful Dead fan who worked at the IPS when Nim was condemned as a scientific failure. Ingersoll comes to represent the moral conscience of the documentary, displaying a concern for Nim while all others around him cared only for the higher goals of science, sex or power. He recognised that although Nim could not construct grammatical sentences, he could at least communicate his emotions and desires. What’s more, Ingersoll kept campaigning for Nim’s welfare, from his time as a lab-rat to his solitary end on a ranch in Texas.
Ingersoll now hopes that by exposing the public to a poignant story of human cruelty to animals, Project Nim might be a tipping point for the animal welfare movement. Given the limited extent of human concern on show here, this is probably a touch optimistic. But Marsh’s documentary shows that sometimes it takes a well-crafted piece of art to make a simple but easily overlooked point. Despite his inability to wisecrack, or indeed to learn sign language, Nim’s tale is a very human one about the need for compassion, and the consequences of an absence of compassion.
Nevertheless, it would be a sad irony if all the audience takes from this touching film is a misanthropic vision of human nature. After all, Nim owed his tragic fate to those who were too wrapped up in their own concerns to fulfil the basic duty of care. We should take a leaf out of Bob Ingersoll’s book, and think a little more about the chimp. Nim is the star of this tale, and it is a tale that is wonderfully told.