This review is dedicated to the mission of the Great Ape Project, which seeks to preserve the safety and moral rights of the non-human great primates.
But in fact, this was the mere beginning of poor Nim's troubles, which form the backbone of Project Nim, an absolutely enthralling and at times irritatingly pushy film from James Marsh, whose last documentary was the Oscar-winning and massively engaging Man on Wire, and whose last feature, Red Riding: 1980 was not any of the adjectives I have so far used in this review. So yay for him getting back to non-fiction.
But anyway, back to Nim: born in a rather nasty, institutional primate facility in Oklahoma in 1973, he was "rented", for want of a better term, by Professor Herbert Terrace, a linguist at Columbia, who wanted to try out an experiment that I pray to whatever gods may be would be laughed out of an ethics committee today. In essence, a newborn chimp was to be raised by a human couple as though it was a human baby, and taught a variant of American Sign Language as soon as possible, and the theory went that it would be able to construct grammatically viable sentences using that language, and thus proving something about innate understanding of grammar, according to then trendy notions that I believe are presently discredited, but perhaps the linguists in the audience can chime in. It doesn't really matter, because almost from the first instant, things went wrong: Terrace started by doing a fuckawful job of vetting his candidates, and Nim was placed with irresponsible hippies Wer LaFarge (who hated the animal) and his wife Stephanie (who treated him like a magical free spirit in the best 1970s tradition, meaning she let the chimp smoke pot). When this went as poorly as you'd expect, Terrace snatched up Nim and placed him with a rotating series of grad students in a gorgeous upstate manor home, surrounded by people who persisted in believing that if you treat a chimp like a little person, he will become a little person.
Eventually, when it became obvious that keeping an animal honed by evolution to be a territorial, sexually aggressive fighter around a bunch of easygoing young people was a terrible idea, he returned the chimp to Oklahoma to start mashing through his data. Nim, meanwhile, had never been forced to interact with another chimpanzee, and had no idea how to do it; his miserable solitude was cut short when he was sold to a lab for experimentation, whereupon he was rescued by a Texas animal lover whose ranch would have been the perfect haven, if only anybody there had the foggiest idea of how to take care of a chimpanzee.
Every word of this is true - it is the basic story agreed to by all of the major players who still live (Stephane LaFarge, Herbert Terrace, several of his research assistants, some of the workers at the Oklahoma facility), in despite of the obvious fact that several of them would clearly like nothing more than to rip the beating hearts out of each other. But if it were totally made up, it could not be more sensationally melodramatic and miserable; right down to his ridiculous name and birth in a filthy hovel to a mother he never saw, Nim's story is beat-for-beat out of a Charles Dickens bildungsroman. It's an irresistible story, and for the most part, Project Nim is an exercise in doing nothing more than telling it with as much clarity and context as Marsh can stuff into just over an hour and a half using an aesthetic that he rather liberally cribs from Errol Morris (the stare-right-into-the-camera moments in interviews are the most blatant giveaway). The one thing he importantly does not do is lean on any one particular interpretation of these events (in contrast to e.g. Werner Herzog, who already made his version of this film with Grizzly Man), although the material itself already suggests that this is a story of the virtually unlimited bounds of human ignorance, with each and every single character - from the most villainous (probably Terrace himself) to the most beatific (charming '60s relic Bob Ingersoll, who fancied himself Nim's last, best friend) - equally culpable of forgetting that Nim was, at heart, not a goddamn person, and who invariably treated him in a way guaranteed to fuck his 26-year life as thoroughly as an animal in captivity has ever been fucked. The casual violation of every basic precept of animal rights by even the most sympathetic and loving of Nim's boosters, many of whom eagerly announce their total lack of knowledge about chimp behavior as if it makes them some kind of savant, is sickening, when it is not heartbreaking.
Nim's story is so fascinating and telling about who we are as a culture and how we perceive ourselves in a world of fellows species, that it would probably be impossible for even the very worst of filmmakers to screw it up, and Marsh is not the worst of filmmakers. In fact, he is quite good, utilising a panoply of talking heads, and the reels and reels of footage of Nim, and recreations using actors and an animatronic chimp, and blending the three sources so cleanly that it's only later that you start to notice the artifice. Indeed, the only flaw to speak of is that Marsh is guilty, in places, of perpetrating the same sin perpetrated by his targets: a lot of Project Nim is tailored to appeal to the pet lover in all of us, the one who insists on humanising everything that an animal ever does. "Poor little Nim!" we cry. "He's so unhappy!" Undoubtedly, but unhappiness maybe doesn't mean the same thing for a chimpanzee as it does for us, and that's sort of exactly the point that the rest of the movie raises. Now, I'm a cat owner, and I don't have to be sold on the idea that non-humans can have very distinctive personalities. Still, it cheapens Project Nim to tug on our heartstrings in quite that way, when the most important point it raises is the idea that there is an irreducible chimp-ness that cannot and must not be yoked in human clothes and human behavior, but which is as valid to the chimp in question as our human-ness is to ourselves.
Anyway, ethical issues aside, there's nothing that gets in the way of the film's greater point, which is that our intense desire to find patterns that normalise humanity as being "the way" of life tend to turn us into idiots and scoundrels, and that the most essential part of human existence is a blinkered insistence on seeing the world as we think it ought to be, rather than as it is. Late in the film, we learn that Project Nim was a complete bust, as research: everything presented onscreen, all that suffering, advanced knowledge not one iota. That seems horribly appropriate and maybe even inevitable; whatever else went on in this morass of good intentions and epic ignorance, the pursuit of truth seems to have been at best a secondary concern.
P.S. The post title; yes, I am aware that chimpanzees are not monkeys. Take it up with Lew Lehr.