Project Nim: James (Man on Wire) Marsh Docu of Chimpanzee Experiment

James Marsh’s new docu, “Project Nim,” tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee that in the 1970s was the focus of an experiment aiming to show that an ape could learn language communication skills, if raised and nurtured like a human being.

Marsh, who previously directed the Oscar-winning “Man on Wire,” chooses difficult, challenging projects for his films.

World-premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Fest, where it won the Best Director Award, “Project Nim” will be released by Roadside Attractions in July.

Following Nim’s colorful (to say the least) journey, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is on one level an unflinching and revelatory biography of a unique animal. But, clearly, “Project Nim” is much more than that—it’s an emotionally and ethically complex drama. At the end of the journey, you’ll find yourself provoked to think about biological versus cultural determinism, moral problems involved in such experiments, and other relevant issues.

In November 1973, a baby chimpanzee is born in a cage at a primate research center in Oklahoma. A few days later, his mother is knocked down, and her screaming baby is seized from her and placed into the waiting arms of a new human being, a psychology grad student and mother of three children.

“Project Nim” is considered to be one of the most radical experiment of its kind. Indeed, under the supervision of a psychology professor at Columbia University, the chimp was taught the sign language of the deaf, hoping that he would acquire sufficient words to relate his thoughts and feelings.

The stake are high, but so are the expectations.  If successful, the consequences could be profound in breaking down the barrier between man and his animal relative, fundamentally redefining our theories about the essence of human nature.

For a while, sucking on his pacifier, baby Nim gazes into his new mother’s eyes just as her own babies. Clothed, he’s taken to his family’s large house on the Upper West side of Manhattan to begin his new life.

Within a few months, he is communicating his desires in sign language, while also wrecking the house. Cunning, mischievous and increasingly strong, Nim outgrows his first family and is then adopted by various female students who live with him in the Delafield estate in Riverdale, a large mansion owned by Columbia University.

Nim’s animal nature continues to emerge strongly. However,  though affectionate and playful, he can’t help but attacks humans he perceives as weak. At the age of 5, with a vocabulary of 120 words, Nim’s spell in human society is curtailed. The experiment is abandoned and Nim is taken back to the Oklahoma’s research center learn how to live with his own kind.

Spoiler Alert

With communication skills intact, Nim makes lifelong friends with the human staff; he gets to drink beer and smoke joint with them. But the center is running out of funds and, within a few years, Nim is sold into medical research and placed in a small, isolated cage in a lab in upstate New York.

News of his predicament filters through to members of his human “family” who then set about trying to free him with the help of press interest–and maverick lawyer. Nim is bought by a high-profile animal rights activist who takes him to his Texas animal sanctuary. But, with no chimps or signing humans there, Nim finds himself isolated, and his human advocates try to rescue him again.

Combining the testimony of key participants, new archival film and dramatic imagery, “Project Nim” is the compelling story of one chimpanzee’s extraordinary journey.

It’s a tribute to Marsh’s skills as a filmmaker that the docu is serious but not dry, unsettling but full of insights about the ways of human society, harsh in some sequences and tender and sensitive in others, provocative but also funny.  In the hands of a less skillful director, it could have easily become just an eccentric or bizarre curiosity item.