Full Frame Film Festival 2011: ‘Project Nim’

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Project Nim, directed by James Marsh, gave us a very different insight into the study of language. Mr. Marsh directed the academy award winning Man on Wire, and we were genuinely excited about anything new from him. This film is about the notorious experiment in the ‘70s to raise a chimpanzee in a human environment and teach it sign language. Let’s just say that the best thing about this experiment was the name given to the chimp (Nim Chimpsky), both a pun on and an intended refutation of the dominant linguistic theorist of the time, Noam Chomsky.

There are several great things about the film, however. One is the wealth of archival footage providing what looks like a satire of the liberal ‘70s. Nim is raised for a time by a hippy family in a brownstone on the upper west side, dressed in groovy outfits, given tokes off a doobie, occasionally breast fed, and generally allowed to run free with the other children of the era. He gets caught up in various love triangles and self-serving lifestyles of the students teaching him language.

Ultimately, Nim proves to be very clever and somewhat violent, but his possession of genuine language is deemed “uncertain” by the “scientists” involved. What is certain is that Nim is utterly betrayed by those who were raising him, studying him and were responsible for his well being. After the five years of funding ran out for the project, he is sent into a series of primate “centers” that resemble prisons and “medical labs” that are really torture chambers. The clueless and helpless brutality of the enlightened and liberating forces of science provide a dark, almost Swiftian, condemnation of human enterprises.

Chimps may not be human (as clarified by the refusal to let Nim “speak” at his own trial against animal cruelty), but the humans here are clearly just a bunch of Yahoos.