"Nim Banana Eat"
I remember studying Nim for A Level Psychology and being fascinated with the idea that Chimps could communicate in this manner. Since that time I have become interested in anthropology and primatology and while I’m no expert, I wasn’t shocked or surprised by any of the incredible things that Nim was capable of. Had I come to the film with no knowledge of Nim or the study I expect I would have enjoyed the film more than I did.
The documentary is presented with talking heads and archive footage as well as stills and occasional re-enactments. While this is quite basic I can’t think of another way to present the story as Nim is no longer around to talk for himself. The story focuses on Nim’s life from a two week old baby, being taken from his mother to his death in the year 2000. Various teachers, handlers and owners come in and out of the film as it progresses chronologically. Most of the interviewees appear to give straight and honest answers, some even admitting that they let down Nim but it felt like a lot of them were holding back, especially when it came to discussing other people who had contact with Nim. Director James March presents the film in much the same way as his critically acclaimed Man on Wire but the film lacks the passion and drive of that Oscar winner. That film was also much more reliant on re-enactment, something which is going to be difficult with chimp actors.
What the documentary does do is to raise questions about how the study and Nim were handled. It often seemed as though there was little ‘good science’ occurring with few journals or documents kept and no routine. For the first few years of Nim’s life he was raised by an ex student of the Project’s head, Herbert Terrance. In his formative years Nim was given free licence to do what he wanted and there were few controls placed upon him, either scientifically or behaviourally. Nim was later passed to a current student and finally to a third teacher. Two of the three ‘owners’ had been involved with Terrance sexually, raising further questions about the scientific nature of the study. Out of everyone interviewed it is Terrance who comes out of the documentary looking the worst. (Even worse than the animal tester).
The third act takes a deceivingly sad turn as Nim is transported first to a Primate Institute then to a testing laboratory. Some of the scenes are distressing and I felt incredibly sad while watching them. How anyone could treat Chimpanzees in such a way is beyond me but when you have been watching a Chimp who can sign, use the toilet, hug cats and dress himself it makes the viewing even worse. It takes a long time to reach a slightly happier ending but the first third is most definitely the happiest third.
Project Nim is an interesting documentary that is told in a traditional and sometimes boring way. The subject matter is far from boring however and if you’ve never heard of or studied Primate Linguistics then I highly recommend you spend 93 minutes watching this film.