In a nutshell: Thought-provoking monkey business

Popcorn rating: 4.5/5 

Mention chimpanzees, and some bore will tell you they share 99 per cent of our DNA. So… does that mean they could learn to talk? Project Nim is a documentary about a chimp who, back in the 70s, was supposed to answer that question. Snatched with heartrending cruelty from his mother, Nim is borrowed by academic Herbert Terrace and raised by the hippy intellectual equivalent of the Brady Bunch before he’s whisked off to a mansion where ‘tutors’ in bell-bottoms attempt to teach him sign language.

Told through captivating archive footage, interviews with the humans concerned and some short dramatised sequences, Nim’s true story has all the dramatic highs and lows of fiction and a large cast of real-life heroes, villains and misguided idiots. Short, balding Terrace, who dined out on the publicity from his project for years, is particularly unappealing, although as it’s the 70s his Alan Partridge tennis shorts and limp moustache apparently make him irresistible to his nubile 18-year-old assistant.

Almost everyone interviewed professes to have loved Nim, which is actually the most frustrating thing about the film. Because for them, ‘loving’ Nim meant dressing him up like a doll, feeding him a diet of sugary junk and being inexplicably surprised when the cute infant chimp became an aggressive, testosterone-fuelled five-foot adult with the strength of six men. When Nim starts to bite chunks out of people like, you know, an actual chimpanzee, the project is abandoned and Nim is dumped at the grim primate breeding centre he came from. Oh, and the centre’s chief income comes from selling chimps for clinical trials.

Like all the best stories, Nim’s tale is never predictable – the only person who really understands him is actually a lanky stoner at the chimp farm, and the man who frees him and many other chimps from the vivisection lab is, incredibly, the doctor who runs the place. Similarly, an animal sanctuary isn’t quite what we’d hope, and when the adult Nim is reunited with his adoptive human mother – well, his reaction isn’t quite the expected one.

Project Nim is fascinating, startling and visually arresting throughout. Watch it after Rise of the Planet of the Apes for an alternate take on our complicated relationship with our closest primate cousins.

But wait! I hear you ask. What about the sign language? Does Nim really learn to talk? Well, as it turns out, nobody knows if he actually acquired language, or simply did tricks for bananas like a chimp in a PG Tips ad. But either way, when listless, lonely Nim gets a visit after many miserable years in solitary confinement from his only true human friend Bob, I don’t think it’s an accident that he signs ‘hug’ and ‘play’.

Reviewer: JoSheppard

  1. curlyshirley says:

    Top work Jo – the review alone made me so angry and sad that I almost cried for Nim. Not sure I’m strong enough to actually watch this, it sounds utterly heartbreaking. You have to tell me though, what was his reaction to his adoptive mum? Why did the doctor free the chimps? Obviously this is a good thing but did he explain why he was the running the place and then, I assume, changed his mind? Is Bob the stoner you mention? Feel free not to answer the questions of course, just shows my curiosity is piqued by this excellent review..

    • He was brought up at first in this ridiculous family who essentially treated him like a human child (well, if you’re the sort of parent who lets your child eat nothing but sugar and rip the house to bits, anyway) and the mother essentially played the role of his mother. But then he was moved away from her so he could be taught sign language in a more scientific environment. Anyway – he spent some time later in an animal sanctuary where they didn’t really have the facilities to look after him, and she went to see him. He clearly recognised her, but was not at all pleased to see her and attacked her so aggressively that they actually thought they might have to shoot him. Fortunately he eventually stopped physically hurling her around and they got her out, but he clearly held a serious grudge against her, almost as if he blamed her for abandoning him.

      It does have a happy ending (he ended up somewhere nice and met some nice other chimps and became a dad, before eventually dying peacefully but rather suddenly in his late 20s) but there are bits that are incredibly sad. For a start, he was the sixth baby to be born to his mother, but they took them ALL away from her at birth, and she was devastated each time, which I just think is so abominably cruel. When they finished the research project they just took him back to the awful place they’d got him and he was not only stuck in a cage, but was also with other chimps for the first time ever, and was terrified of them and had no idea how to interact with them because he’d only ever been around humans. At this point he meets Bob, the stoner bloke, who really did seem to have a genuine rapport with him and made an effort to see that he was treated as well as could be expected, but then he and the other chimps are sold to a laboratory where they do research into vaccines. Harrowing. However, the bloke who ran the place was really quite odd in that he actually seemed to care quite a lot about the chimps in a weird way, and rehomed Nim and eventually lots of other chimps. He just said that he doesn’t think animal research can ever be humane, but equally, they simply couldn’t develop medicines without it, and it was therefore a necessary evil, but he clearly would rather have not done it.

      Bob, who Nim adored, still campaigns for the welfare of chimps to this day.

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