Yesterday we went to see Project Nim, an utterly fascinating account of the life of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was brought up in a human family and taught sign language.
I always knew that there was a chimp, or chimps, who had been taught to sign, but this film raised a question that had never crossed my mind – what happened afterwards?
But I think the surprising thing was what happened before the experiment, which appeared to be precisely nothing. Linguistics professor decides to give a chimp to his ex-lover to bring up in her family. No instructions. She knows nothing about chimps. And no-one thinks about what happens when the chimp grows up.
I liked that Nim experienced utter seventies hippie anarchy along with the other children. They all seemed to share their animal side. But I did want to hear more about his deep antipathy for the father of the family, Wer. I would have liked to hear from him (if he is still alive).
When Nim moves into a house in the countryside with a bunch of students and starts to grow up, there are new issues with his growing strength and, well, chimp behaviour, in parallel with great progress in his signing. And Herb Torrance (the professor) turns into more of the mustachio-twirling villain, getting off with his 18-year-old assistant while keeping a safe emotional and physical distance from the growing chimp (but taking all the glory). The bit where he says of a mauled student “I think she went to the Emergency Room or something, I’m not sure” while she describes the 3 months she spent with a gaping wound in her face is greatly telling.
We see Nim abandoned to chimp society after he has learned to be half-human. The story veers around the country, becoming more and more fantastical, more like a morality tale. How did science and the world forget the talking chimp?
The style of the film reminded me of The Fog of War. It is calm (mostly) and comes across as factual. It tells the story as talking heads rather than a separate narrator. And it was as utterly compelling as The Fog of War’s Vietnam insight, and equally well constructs speakers who damn themselves more thoroughly than a narrator could.
I did wonder, however, how much I was being manipulated in a seemingly factual setting. The music started to swell towards the last third of the film. I know that not all the film is real: I don’t know yet which sections were reconstructed (I wanted to write first) but I did see one continuity error. And interviews are always a matter of selective quotation. It’s an interesting study of how the film-maker makes the story.
The story itself made me glad of our over-controlled scientific world, of ethics committees and paperwork. I’m glad that no-one else can just say “I’ll have a chimp” then send their talking, clothed, granola-eating wonder-chimp back to the cage, only to be retrieved for photo-shoots. But I’m glad too that we saw the fascinating participants in this film tell their stories.