Published May 10, 2011Following up the slightly overrated Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire with another tale of a minor '70s celebrity, James Marsh has crafted an arguably more cohesive and intellectual non-fiction story of nature versus nurture, psychological development and language as a limiting tool for self-gratification with Project Nim.
What's specifically interesting about this uniquely human exploration of communication and neurotic modes of gratification and id justification is that the subject is a chimpanzee named Nim, whose integration into human society reveals more about us than him, in the end.
Taken from his mother as an infant, Nim is placed with Stephanie LaFarge, an ex-lover of research scientist and Columbia professor Herbert Terrace. Her background in psychology manifests itself as a preoccupation with sexual development – noting Nim's oedipal distain for her poet husband – leaving her to treat the primate as part child, part lover and part play toy, giving him puffs of weed, breastfeeding him and allowing him to explore her body in a somewhat unsettling manner.
The intent was to have her raise the animal as a child, teaching it sign language in an effort to bridge the communication gap between human and animal. But her unorthodox parenting proved problematic on the research methodology front, leaving Professor Terrace to put Nim in the hands of yet another comely young woman, whose focused attention to teaching while bedding her professor was a seemingly more satisfactory match.
Told through candid interviews, with an Errol Morris aesthetic and a series of old photographs and footage, Marsh's documentary tells Nim's story in a linear fashion, detailing a turbulent and abusive upbringing, which simultaneously devastates and amuses. Just as we laugh about young Nim dry-humping a cat and manipulating his teachers to get out of studying, we also notice increasingly erratic behaviour stemming in part from his animal nature, but more so from an unstable and inconsistent upbringing.
Continually taken away from mother figures and subjected to conflicting modes of child rearing, Nim's occasional rages seem to stem from repeated abandonment and emotional isolation. Whether this is merely projection based upon our tendency to anthropomorphize is an objective debate unrelated to Marsh's engrossing and absorbing documentary.
What is instead at the forefront of Project Nim thematically is the intense solipsism of everyone involved in the subject's upbringing, unable to communicate or understand their project despite spending their days working on the very subject of communication. The irony is that we know exactly how Nim feels without him ever needing to sign a single world. (Mongrel Media)