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August 3, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

Project Nim (Melbourne International Film Festival)

Published July 2011 at


If you’re a viewer susceptible to outrage, you may just get a touch steamed over Project Nim. Directed by Man On Wire’s James Marsh, Project Nim is an angry and sometimes brutal account of the ongoing mistreatment of an animal too wild to defend itself, yet too human to be ignored.

In 1973, convinced that he could find proof of simian ability to use language, Professor Herb Terrace commenced a ground-breaking experiment. Originally born in a chimpanzee enclosure in America and removed from his mother at birth, Nim Chimpsky (after Naom Chomsky, a prominent philosopher and political dissident) became the focus of the highly publicised study.

It’s clear from the opening scenes that the experiment fails basic questions of ethics and methodology. Terrace seems horribly inept at understanding his subject or enforcing any kind of research plan, yet he is conveniently always available for photo-ops with his animal protégé. It’s not as though he even participates in the chimpanzee’s progress, either; it is Stephanie LaFarge, a young student and mother to 7, who initially agrees to participate in the research program and rears Nim in the same manner as a human baby. When Nim moves on to his next round of carers, a somewhat more motivated set of scientists, it soon becomes dangerously apparent that nature is exerting serious power over nurture.

Project Nim paints very few of the original participants of the study in an overly positive light, and there’s plenty of bad blood between varying groups affected by the project. Marsh edits the interviews between the LaFarge family, Terrace, and the carers who observed Nim after the research period ended into a considered but damning collage of conflicting opinions and motivations. It’s unfortunate, then, that these sometimes harrowing portraits are sometimes undermined by shoddy ‘re-enactment’ scenes, which confuse the line between reality and drama; at most points when it is used, it is wholly unnecessary. The cinematography can also sometimes feel a little overdone; what little fresh material there is mainly consists of present-day interviews with long panning sequences. Fortunately the majority of archived material is interesting and engaging, making up for the poor quality.

Marsh’s direction also ensures that almost everyone involved in the program has the opportunity to talk honestly, largely escaping any unfair editing treatment for the sake of scandal. Interestingly, it seems several of the interview subjects unwittingly damn themselves, even with elements of sympathetic editing. What’s more surprising is each individual’s willingness to distribute blame wherever they see fit, particularly in such a public medium. It paints a questionable picture about motives, emotions, relations between cognisant organisms, and abuse in the name of science.

There’s little to be said about this film that paints any kind of fair picture about the state of animal treatment in the late seventies and early eighties; it’s the kind of film that creates enraged animal activists from normal people. Yet what seems most galling of all is that many of the experiment’s participants seem only to connect to Nim on a purely human level; when he acts like a chimpanzee, the connection they forged with him (and hence any empathy) seems completely lost. In the carnivorous history of human ambition, Project Nim paints its simian subject as a creature sacrificed for almost no purpose at all.

A Crikey review by Luke Buckmaster is available here.


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