‘Project Nim’ was a scientific project undertaken in the 1970’s which hoped to develop a greater degree of communication between humans and a chimpanzee. The documentary examines the life of Nim, how he adapted to the myriad environments he encountered and ultimately what became of him.
Nim’s full name ‘Nim Chinski’ is taken from the noted linguist Noam Chomski, though linguistics takes a back seat for most of the film. Though it is true that throughout, Nim’s progress at sign language is monitored, the heart of the story is a morality tale with a great array of characters. After Nim is forcefully removed from his mother he is sent to a middle class hippy who, with orders to treat him like a member of the family, breast feeds and lets him run riot around the house. How or why this woman was chosen is unclear, though we do discover that she and the leader of the project previously had a relationship. After the project manager decides that Nim living in a house with extremely liberal attitudes may not be conducive to the ideal scientific results he moves Nim into a facility and hires a college student (with whom he also has a relationship) to teach him sign language. More characters come and go and Nim is moved around at everyone’s pleasure. It seems bizarre that this project isn’t examined and scrutinised by anyone apart from this horny project manager, bringing its validity into question.
Marsh’s previous documentary, the utterly absorbing ‘Man on Wire’ had at its heart the character of Philippe Petite, an eccentric, French tightrope walker to guide it, Project Nim has a chimpanzee who can use sign language and has a tendency to bite. As cute as Nim is he isn’t much of a conversationalist so his story is shown through archive footage and by the men and women that cared for him. What the film is actually interested in is to use the tale of Nim to highlight the struggle and failure of the human race’s understanding of the natural world, of each other and our primordial cousins. When we look at Nim what we really see is ourselves and our failure to understand who we are.