Project Nim, is a biographical documentary that tells the story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was subjected to an ambitious language acquisition research-experiment in the 1970s to determine if apes had the ability to communicate with humans. Taken from his screaming, and subsequently sedated mother only a few days after his birth, Nim was raised within a human environment, treated as an ‘equal’ human child by those around him, and taught American Sign Language. However attempts to elicit legitimate communication were often marred by criticisms of the overall scientific management of the project and an increase in violent attacks by the progressively powerful chimp. After one particularly dangerous attack, the project was stopped and Nim was sold to a research laboratory before animal advocates intervened to rescue him and take him to an animal sanctuary where he lived the rest of his life.
Although the title (Project Nim) suggests the film will focus upon the scientific data, purpose and intent of the research-experiment, director James Marsh instead chooses to withhold such a systematic analysis. Rather than investigate the techniques and methods of the experiment for example, the film is primarily concerned with recounting Nim’s complicated life. The chimp’s biography is established by editing together archived home videos, pre-existing documentary footage, and retrospective interviews with key characters that were a part of his short life.
Yet Project Nim is not simply a factual biographical documentary of an animal. By also including dramatically re-enacted scenes, Marsh establishes an entertaining narrative framework to recount Nim’s life. Essentially, Project Nim is a biographical dramatic documentary – or bio-docudrama for short.
A major strength of the film is Marsh’s commitment to giving an accurate biographical representation of Nim’s life whilst maintaining the interest of the audience. When interviewed, he mused that “the idea of making a film as a biopic of an animal felt like an intriguing formal challenge” and further wondered “whether it was actually going to be possible to devote a whole film to the life story of an individual animal”. In order to capture his audience’s attention, Marsh elaborates on the conventional visual mediums of the documentary genre. Though he includes genuine and authentic archival video footage and photography of Nim throughout, the film is frequently interspersed with modern dramatic reconstructions and re-enactments of important scenes.
One could argue that these additional, staged theatrical scenes exceed the generic boundaries of the factual documentary genre by distorting what is real and what is created within the film. For example, when the audience is first introduced to Nim at the beginning of the movie, the chimps that are shown are not actually of Nim or his mother despite this suggestion from the over-lay text that fixes their names on screen. However the additional scenes (such as this) are created to fill narrative gaps and visualise key scenes that do not exist in the archive footage. Similarly whilst there may be no genuine footage of Nim being taken away from his mother as an infant at the beginning of the film, this scene is re-imagined and recreated through the oral description of the event by Stephanie LeFarge – the woman who was there.
Though one could question the ‘aesthetic truthfulness’ of merging these re-enacted scenes seamlessly with the genuine factual footage of the documentary, Jerry Khuel argues that the “drama personae” that they create are crucial for maintaining the audience’s attention. In this particular scene for example, the audience’s attention is captured by the heighted drama of the ominous crescendo of the musical string quartet, intensified screams of a distressed chimpanzee (added post-production) and almost horror-movie-esqe imagery of the menacing scientist who fires the tranquilizer shot into the chimp directly to the camera (and thus directly at the audience).
However, whilst Marsh manipulates visual conventions of the documentary genre to create a more engaging film, he tries to avoid explicitly manipulating his audience’s judgement of the film by vocally guiding their views regarding the treatment of Nim. In comparison to other docudramas such as Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (a film that documents Timothy Treadwell and his interactions with bears) there is no narrator in Project Nim to influence the viewer regarding the subject matter of the film. In Grizzly Man, Herzog continually voices his own opinions of Treadwell through his narration. Marsh attempts to remain subjective and non-judgmental by offering each of his interviewed candidates an equal platform to speak from, withholding his own editorial considerations of the film’s events. Thus by refraining from incorporating a narrator, Marsh does not openly state where he believes the boundary between man and animal lies.
However, though Marsh attempts to remain subjective, by avoiding any vocal editorial consideration of the ethical treatment of Nim, he cannot avoid creating a notion of emotional response within his audience. Nim’s story is a tragic tale, a notion supported by the many admissions of guilt throughout the film – “we did a huge dis-service to that soul…” cries Joyce, one of the carers, “…and shame on us”. These admissions of guilt and acknowledgments that “it was wrong” to subject Nim to the research project, highlights the key premise of the film. Attempting to anthropomorphise (ascribe human features to) animals such as Nim can be unsuccessful and mistaken. However, is would seem that this is what Project Nim unconsciously does. Presented with the regrets of those who were a part of the project, the film portrays the events in Nim’s life as emotionally traumatic for the chimp. However the notion of emotional trauma is arguably a human emotional aspect that if attribute to an animal anthropomorphises it in human terms.
Moreover, Marsh fails to remain completely subjective in his film when he subtly provides his own judgments by symbolically including different, domesticated animals within his footage. For example, in many of the re-enacted scenes within the LeFarge household, there is a large German Shepherd Dog. The timing of the dog’s presence is often symbolic – it barks when Herb is first introduced to the audience in the film, and again when Stephanie’s daughter tells of how “there was something [about Herb] that didn’t sit right”. These inclusions imply that even animals don’t trust Herb’s character. Furthermore, by choosing to prominently include a domesticated pet dog in the film, Marsh creates a subtle comparative suggestion that while there are certain species of animal that man has managed to domesticate, and can live with in relative domestic harmony with, this is not yet possible with an ape.
During the summer of 2011 in an amusing (if not slightly ironic) bout of cinematic scheduling, another ape-focused movie was released in Hollywood. A prequel within a blockbuster franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (directed by Rupert Wyatt) tells the fictionalised story of an ape uprising against adverse oppression, inflicted by humans. When compared, it is difficult to not see the resemblances between Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Project Nim. Both begin with young chimps taken away from their mothers in distressing situations, raised within a human family, treated as human, and taught American Sign Language. The plots continue to mirror each other as the protagonist chimp grows, becomes more dominating and aggressive, and is consequentially taken back into captivity and/or animal experimentation.
However this is where the similarities of the two films end. Whilst the protagonist chimps are both forced back into captivity, their reactions are completely different. Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is presented as being explicitly aware of his human betrayal and thus visibly harbours emotional resentment against the human race that culminates in him leading a primate uprising. On the other hand, similar notions of resentment and betrayal are far less apparent in Project Nim. Although Nim attacks Stephanie LeFarge upon her return to visit him towards the end of the movie, it is LeFarge and her daughter who rationalise his violent actions, claiming “he was pissed off”. Therefore, whilst Rise of the Planet of the Apes portrays the ethically emotive consequences of the mistreatment of animals through Caesar’s emotional reactions, Project Nim refrains from doing so. As previously highlighted, James Marsh refrains from giving an evaluative narration thus allowing the viewer to create their own ethical assessment of his treatment by considering the people and events of the film themselves. Therefore, though exaggerated, Rise of the Planet of the Apes resembles a fantasied version of Project Nim that provides a fictional, and far more dramatic, contemplation of the ethical implications of mistreating primates in the interest of scientific experimentation.
- Bousé, D. Wildlife Films, (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).
- Hess, E. Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human (New York: Random House Publishing Group, 2008).
- Kuehl, J ‘Truth Claims’ in New Challenges for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) pp. 103-9.
- Terrace, H.S. Can an Ape Create a Sentence? (Science, New Series, Vol. 206, No. 4421 (Nov. 23, 1979), pp. 891-902). Available at: <https://www.jstor.org/stable/1749272>
 James Marsh, interviewed by Simon Miller, The Economist, (August 2011). <https://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2011/08/documentary-film>
 James Marsh, interviewed by Jason Wood, Curzon Cinemas (July 2011). <https://www.cornerhouse.org/film/film-news/the-curzon-interviewproject-nim-james-marsh>
 Jerry Kuehl, ‘Truth Claims’ in New Challenges for Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988) p. 106.
 See Grizzly Man – directed by Werner Herzog (2005).
 This is the last sentence we hear Stephanie LeFarge say on camera. (1 hour, 24minutes).