I wasn’t sure I wanted to see this documentary. A film about a chimp with the word ‘project’ in the title indicated some sort of suffering to me. So I headed to the Coral Gables Art Cinema with trepidation and watched Project Nim, which is rated PG-13.
According to my production notes, Project Nim is a moving new film from Academy Award-winning director James Marsh who chronicles the life of Nim, a chimpanzee who was the subject of a radical 1970’s experiment that aimed to prove he (the chimp) could communicate with sign language if raised by human caretakers.
The caretakers are interviewed, and their testimonies are mostly heartbreaking. Mixing in-depth interviews with compelling archival footage, the film succeeds both at painting a portrait of Nim’s life and at challenging the audience to hold up a mirror to the way we treat and mistreat animals in the name of scientific discovery.
In essence, Nim is taken away from his mother a few days after his birth. The mother chimp, who knew this was about to happen, (because her previous seven babies had fallen to the same fate), cowered towards the back of her cage in a futile attempt to protect her baby.
Nim grows up in New York with a human family and is taught to “sign” as a way of communication. Although the experiment is successful, notes about the project are vague or non-existent at best and Nim evolves into more of a spoiled child than an experimental subject. Too strong, aggressive in some cases and too big to handle, he is sent off by Professor Herbert Terrace, to a “zoo” for trained chimps in Oklahoma where animals are kept in small cages and forced to fend for themselves against gangs of unfriendly, confined, alpha chimps.
When many of the “incarcerated” chimps were sent off to “labs” I got up and fled the theatre. I understand the importance of scientific experimentation and what it has done to make our world a better and healthier place, but why does research on animals have to be so terribly inhumane? If you go to see this film…and you really should, know that Nim was lucky in many ways. Ultimately my feelings are that wild animals belong in the wild! When humans infiltrate the animal world, animals get hurt, degraded and put in small cages for us to gawk at.
P.S. One week after I first wrote this story, NPR Radio aired a show in which the people who were responsible for Nim’s upbringing and incarceration were interviewed. Decades later they also agreed that what was done to Nim was wrong. Too bad they didn’t do anything about their stupidity when Nim was alive.
Nim opened on July 29th at Regal Delray. It can also be viewed at the Coral Gables Art Cinema: 260 Aragon Ave; Coral Gables www.gablescinema.com.