Project Nim: Interview with Director James Marsh

“Project Nim” is an unusual proposition for a film. We’ve tried to apply some of the principles and techniques of a traditional film biography to the life story of animal.

In the film, we follow an individual chimpanzee through infancy and adolescence to adulthood, all the while witnessing both his emerging behavior and its impact on the humans who lived around him. There are many intriguing behavioral overlaps between humans and chimpanzees explored in the film but it’s the differences between the species that really shape Nim’s life with us and determine his unhappy fate.

As infant Nim grows up, much of his behavior seems familiar, often surprisingly and amusingly so. He laughs, he cries, he craves attention and affection; he is a thrill seeker and a hedonist with a penchant for illegal drugs. He has an extraordinary memory and never forgets anyone he meets. He can be empathetic, affectionate and mischievous.

But from very early on, his own unique nature also asserts itself. His first “mother,” Stephanie LaFarge, is quite shocked by “the wild animal in him” and this continues to emerge powerfully as he grows. If you lack confidence in his presence, look at him the wrong way, or otherwise diss him, he will attack and hurt you. Having made his point, he’ll probably apologize and try to make it up to you.

The paradox and heartbreak for the humans around Nim is that he can scratch and bite people whom he seems genuinely to like. The heartbreak for Nim is that he cannot be any other way and, as he gets stronger, this will guarantee his virtual imprisonment. As the research veterinarian, James Mahoney, later observes in the film: “once you put them in a cage, it’s all downhill from then on…” In the film, we get to know an individual chimpanzee whose baffled reaction to his increasing confinement can stand for the many, many thousands of chimpanzees, equally individual and distinct in character, who find themselves under our control in the same or worse situations.

It’s important to recognize that Nim’s life was never natural in any of its circumstances. He was always under our control — and captivity is a very unnatural environment for any animal, let alone one who was treated like a human being for the first five years of his life.

During those early years, Nim only interacted with humans and had absolutely no contact with his own species. Whilst the specific objective of the scientific study was to raise Nim like a human baby in order to inculcate language, the sterile manner in which this was conducted poses a big question about the respective influences of nature and nurture on a sentient, intelligent creature — and the debate plays out in Nim’s life in a revelatory fashion.

So the story of Nim can’t help but bump into some profound questions. The language experiment was itself a radical idea — its higher objective was to discover what is going on inside a chimp’s mind and how he sees the world. And if a chimp could learn language, what would that mean for our understanding of human language itself and its place in the evolutionary process?

Nim does learn an extensive repertoire of signs. He also learns table manners and how to use the toilet — but in each instance, he uses what he learns for his own ends and quite often to exploit and outwit those who have taught him these skills. In dismissing Nim’s language abilities as begging, Professor Herb Terrace is disappointed that Nim only uses signs to get what he wants. Given his powerless situation in the human world, who can blame him for that? Notwithstanding the dedicated scientific study of Nim, in the course of the film we often discover that Nim studies and understands us better than we understand him.

And how many of the characteristics that we recognize in Nim reflect part of our own genetic endowment? Our murderous aggression, our social hierarchies, our need for hedonistic diversion and sensation — are these hard-wired in our species as well? The humans in the film are consciously holding up a mirror to Nim in order to understand him but we must also ponder the mirror he offers to us in return. Hence the film’s interest in the purely human behavior that Nim exposed in his friends, companions and oppressors.

I hope the film carries these questions and ideas lightly by offering a narrative account of Nim’s life, focused on what he did and what was done to him. For better or worse, the film is not overly concerned with abstract ideas or indeed the scientific issues that frame the initial language experiment. The testimony of the scientists in the film is given no more weight than those others who became Nim’s friend and observed him close up for long periods of time.

If there’s a hero in the story beyond its chimp protagonist, it might be Bob Ingersoll the pot-smoking Grateful Dead fan whom the scientists disregarded. Bob didn’t need signs to communicate with Nim and didn’t really care about the language debate at all. Bob never forsook Nim and once they re-connected after many years apart, he trusts him enough to casually stick his hand into Nim’s mouth as they played. Nim just bites down on the hand with calculated gentleness when he is perfectly capable of biting it clean off. As Bob recalls, Nim’s favorite sign wasn’t a begging sign after all, it was the sign he invented and had always used the most with us: “play” and it meant “let’s play together.”

After I finished my work, I was still vexed about the propriety of the final statement we hear in the film which posits the idea that chimps have a capacity, and indeed an instinct, for forgiveness. I didn’t want to insult Nim with another misleading human projection after so many others had negatively impacted his life. But I realized that the film had already discovered many examples of Nim’s forgiving nature and the person offering the statement, a research vet who by his own admission had caused much suffering and pain to chimpanzees in the name of science, seems well-qualified to know. At this point in the story, he’s also the most in need of — and deserving — of the animal’s grace.