James Marsh won the academy award in 2009 for Man on Wire, a documentary about Philippe Petit, a Frenchman who, in 1974, illegally walked a tightrope between the Twin Towers in New York. Marsh’s theatrical debut, it was a transcendent film about a man who could find fulfillment in life only in living on the edge of death.
Marsh’s follow-up documentary, Project Nim, which premiered at this year’s Miami International Film Festival and opens it first run on Friday at the Regal Delray and Coral Gables Art Cinema, looks at another celebrity of the mid-seventies: Nim Chimpsky. Nim was a chimpanzee and the proverbial guinea pig in an experiment carried out by Columbia University behavioral psychologist Herb Terrace to determine whether a chimp could achieve a higher consciousness if raised as a human child.
Nim meets his first human “mother” as a newborn after his birth mother is shot with a tranquilizer gun at a primate research center in Oklahoma, where she has already been robbed of six babies. The incident casts an early and ominous fog over Marsh’s film that never dissipates.
With his ability to communicate via sign language and stylish (human) wardrobe, Nim enthralled the post-hippie culture. The news media, in their perpetual quest for human-interest pieces starring cute animals, lapped it up like a pack of Pavlovian dogs. But Nim’s life as a would-be Homosapien was far from idyllic, and he ultimately passed through an array of halfway houses, including cages, over the course of a turbulent life.
Project Nim stars no heroes. The people in Nim’s life — his “family” — come off self-righteous in their presumption to know the soul of a chimpanzee, and Terrace himself comes off hypocritical. “You don’t keep a chimp more than five years because they can cause harm to people,” he says, after Nim has attacked more than one of his female caretakers, in one case ripping a gaping hole through the woman’s face.
Using melodramatic orchestral music throughout the narrative, which features archival images and interviews with the people in Nim’s life, Marsh splices together a moving film that hooks you early and never lets go. Project Nim’s richness comes from a cast of characters who express their love for Nim in corrupting ways, for example, by smoking pot with the chimp and even breastfeeding him. Such acts add to the dynamism of a film that shows how good intentions and human folly can wreak havoc on a living creature.
Once you get past the allure of being able to transfer humanity to animals, Project Nim’s denunciation of Terrace’s misguided experiment is clear and compelling. In his own way, Marsh reiterates what Werner Herzog said in his own brilliant man-and-nature documentary, Grizzly Man, about Timothy Treadwell and his foolhardy “friendship” with grizzly bears, one of which ended up eating him alive:
“I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony, but chaos, hostility, and murder,” Herzog says, “and what haunts me is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature.”
Though it is not the transcendent experience of Man on Wire, Project Nim offers its own potency and revelations. Yes, Nim may have a consciousness, but his mind is not human, an immutable fact that dooms Terrace’s experiment from the beginning. Laura-Ann Petitto, Nim’s second surrogate mother, says as much at one point in the film: “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you.”
Hans Morgenstern maintains a blog on independent film and music called The Independent Ethos. He’s freelanced for several music publications for 20 years and worked in programming at local film festivals.