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…