Project Nim (12A)

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The Independent Culture

The release of this documentary by James Marsh (Man on Wire) in the same week as Rise of the Planet of the Apes is wittily timed. It too speaks of caged primates, though its judgement on their captors is far more disturbing.

Nim was a chimpanzee and test subject for a Columbia University psychology professor, Herb Terrace, who thought chimps could be taught sign language and thus offer a way into the animal mind. Taken from his mother at birth, Nim was raised as a human, first by a family of hippie bohemians whose matriarch breast-fed him and allowed the occasional toke of a joint (this was the 1970s), then by a research student involved with the sinister Prof Terrace himself. Once Nim hits adolescence and his natural aggression inclines him to bite his overseers, you know the creature's story is not going to end happily. "You can't give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you," says one of his minders, an insight that may have occurred to the audience. You may scent the feral breath of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man, though homicide was, perhaps unfortunately, avoided. Nim, having learned to sign and acquired "friends", is dispatched to the primate facility whence he came. The researchers (with one or two noble exceptions) fall away, while Terrace, sickeningly, abjures the experiment and calls the chimp "a brilliant beggar". What Nim thought of him, and them, naturally goes unrecorded, though James Marsh's beady, brilliant narrative allows us to take a good guess.