Project Nim

The EIFF had a fundraising preview screening of Project Nim last night, so my friend Alexis and I went to see it.

It’s basically the story of Nim Chimpsky, a baby chimpanzee who was raised by humans as a language experiment. It’s heartbreaking: he is taken away from his mother at two weeks, then moves from home to home until basically no one wants him anymore. The scientist who headed the study, Herb Torrance, has questionable methods and motives, and most of his teachers eventually leave the experiment due to Nim’s increased aggression. Nim’s story is told through archival material, interviews, and re-enactments. The filmmakers didn’t want to perpetuate the exploitation of apes by hiring an animal performer, so in the re-enactments, they use animatronics, puppetry, and a human actor.

I’ve always had an interest in primatology, and the more I learned about it, the more troubled the field seemed to me (at least in the early years). The practice of it is weirdly gendered (“Leakey’s Angels”, anyone?) and it’s weighted down with a lot of cultural baggage in terms of a Western attitude about animals. It’s almost racialized– in fact, the paternalistic attitudes towards primates have eerie echoes in the way that aboriginal people are often treated. When Nim was first taken away from his family, I thought about residential schools. I’m actually surprised at how the researchers went about their study: after all, language can’t really be isolated from culture, and it could definitely be argued that chimps have culture. The research takes no account of the way chimps might perceive the world in the first place.

What is striking is that, though Nim doesn’t speak at all, the interviews with those who were close to him reveal that Nim had a great observational power, and that he probably understood more than he was able to express with his limited vocabulary of signs. He seemed to sense that his first human “family” was fraught and tense: a blended family including a patriarch whose supremacy was being challenged by a wife who made unilateral decisions, including the one that brought Nim under their roof. He understood the relationships between his caregivers, manipulating them to get out of situations he found uncomfortable.

Never once does anyone consider that a human house might be the opposite of a good environment for a chimp. Why do they not move humans into a chimp’s natural habitat instead? It’s horrible what they put him through. It really makes you think about those who are vulnerable to the whims of dominant society: children, the poor, the uneducated, animals, and even threatened natural spaces. As their protectors, don’t we have some responsibility towards their welfare?

Nim’s story is hard to watch, but everyone should see it.

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