Have you ever wondered what it would be like to communicate with another animal? If so, you’re not alone.
From the Oscar and BAFTA winning filmmakers behind Man on Wire, James Marsh and Simon Chinn, comes the true story of Nim the chimpanzee.
In the 1970s Nim was used in a landmark experiment which aimed to find out whether a chimpanzee could learn to communicate with humans using sign language if he was raised and nurtured like a human child.
Project Nim follows and chronicles his extraordinary but tragic 27-year life from start to end. Along the way you meet the fascinating array of human characters who had the biggest influences, both positive and negative, on him. Throughout the film extensive archive footage and revealing interviews are used to great effect.
The feature-length documentary is an honest and unsentimental biography, a similar format to other life-stories of people who have had unusual or interesting lives. What makes this different is that the star of this film isn’t human, he’s a chimpanzee.
From the very start in 1973 when Nim’s terrified mother Carolyn is violently shot with a tranquilising gun and yet another screaming baby is ripped from her arms in a primate research centre in Oklahoma, it is clear that you are in for an emotional rollercoaster.
Baby Nim is given straight to a hippy family in New York. The seemingly well-intentioned mother, who even breast feeds him, soon develops an extremely strong, though slightly bizarre, attachment to the unusual new addition.
From the outset, there is no structure in place for the supposedly scientific experiment. Nim’s new ‘mother’ has never dealt with chimps before, knows no sign language and does not record any data in his first years of development. Dr. Herb Terrace (’Herb’), the controlling Columbia University psychology professor behind the project even admits that “It was not good science”. Even more concerningly, no thought was given to Nim’s long-term future, and from the start Herb was aware that “nobody keeps a chimp for more than five years.”
As the years pass by Nim is passed from pillar to post through a succession of teachers and ‘carers’ who all have their own motivations for getting involved, and often inter-relationships with each other.
Slowly but surely Nim becomes more and more of a chimpanzee and less like a human child as he grows bigger and stronger and his natural instincts kick in.
Not surprisingly, the constant change and lack of stability and security take its toll on him. He of course doesn’t understand what is happening and becomes confused, distressed and sexually frustrated.
Although when taught sign language Nim soon picks it up at an amazing rate, the outcome of the highly irresponsible and ultimately doomed experiment remains inconclusive.
When Nim has served his purpose and become too much of a chimpanzee to control, and funds for the experiment run dry, he is abandoned by all who ‘cared’ for him. He is taken back to the primate research centre and everything he had become used to is suddenly taken away from him.
However Nim makes some new friends with some of the human staff. Because the centre is running out of funds, after a few years Nim is quietly sold on to a medical research company. His latest home becomes a small isolated cage in a laboratory.
It is when Nim’s life is at its lowest that some humans finally take responsibility and efforts are made to get him out of the laboratory. With the help of media interest and a maverick lawyer, Nim is bought by a high profile animal rights activist who takes him to his animal sanctuary in Texas. However, with no chimps or signing humans for company Nim finds himself more lonely and distressed than ever. As one of his few true friends, Bob, says, “you can’t put a chimp in a box and expect everything to be cool.”
Nim’s human friends must come to his rescue again... What will be Nim’s ultimate fate at our hands?
When I watched the film I felt a mixture of emotions. I felt at times entertained and amused. I felt mostly frustrated and angry and sad. And I think one of the strongest feelings I had was the shame of being a human being, because of the way that Nim was treated throughout his life.
Throughout his life a lot of humans ended up turning their backs on him. But not all. Bob Ingersoll was a true friend to Nim. Read OneKind’s interview with Bob and find out how he was affected by his relationship with Nim, what he thinks about chimpanzees and other animals and what positive changes he hopes the Project Nim film will have for animals.
I would highly recommend Project Nim, which goes on general release in cinemas on the 12th August. You don‘t have to be an animal lover to enjoy this gripping, unpredictable and heart-wrenching film. In fact it’s as much, if not more, about humans as it is chimpanzees. You can’t help but develop strong feelings for Nim, his plight and of course the human beings who shaped his extraordinary and fascinating life.
Let’s hope that by documenting the life of this one chimpanzee, the film can open peoples’ minds and consciences to all other animals. The film raises many important issues regarding our relationships with other animals, including the use of animals in experiments. OneKind is currently campaigning to maintain the welfare standards for animals used in experiments in the UK which are under threat. If you’ve not already done so please add your name in support of our campaign.