Film Review: Project Nim

Project Nim Film Nim Chimpsky
   Project Nim casts it's lens on a group of academics who attempt to raise a Chimpanzee as a homo sapien and, in doing so, lose touch of their own humanity.

   Like all the great documentaries, James Marsh's melancholic, philosophical film achieves the task of not only chronicling the subject at hand - here, the morose life of a sign-language fluent primate amusingly named Nim Chimpsky - but also exposing the audience to bigger, grander truths too. Like the great Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, Project Nim plays out as a cautionary tale of the hubris of man placing himself at the centre of the universe and the catastrophe that inevitably ensues; whilst Herzog's film showcases the perils of a human attempting to live free as an animal, Marsh's movie highlights the folly of trying to humanise the wild.

   Nim's tale begins with a psychological debate - can the nature/nurture argument for behaviour be proved one way or another? Nim is the test subject. Reared to live with humans, can he be taught a system of communication that would, essentially, validate the nurture argument?

   The project begins in the 1970s where scientific procedure and ethical protection are not particularly guaranteed - there's much madness in the way Nim is brought up, but not as great an attention is paid to the methodology. Nim, raised in an affluent hippy home, finds himself influenced by an overly liberal environemnt; soon, he is drinking alcohol and smoking cannabis. The humans in Nim's life become embroiled in inter-person politics, harmful relationships with each other and all the messy nonsense of homo sapien society - Nim, a chimp who is growing more powerful by the day, is often the victim of an entangled web of human's struggling to overcome their innate selfishness.

   It is not long into his life that Nim caves into some of his more animalistic tendencies - he may have learnt the human-approved way of requesting to use the toilet, but no academic can truly eradicate the beastly, violent outbursts of a frustrated chimp. It is decided, perhaps he isn't human after all and, as such, humane treatment may not be the best course of action for a chimpanzee - his early life is destroyed by human pursuit for knowledge, his end of days too see Nim the victim of scientific study. The results are heart-breaking. "We did a disservice to that soul," one of Nim's former teachers cries. "Shame on us."

   The main thing Nim's life shows us is less to do with chimpanzees, and more to do with how self-deceiving, how base, how low human beings can go. Marsh's film shows us what it is to be human. The reflection we see is grotesque.
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