Tuesday, December 13, 2011

DVD Review: Project Nim

Project Nim *** ½
Directed by: James Marsh.

I couldn’t help but think of the summer blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes while watching Project Nim. If ever there was a monkey with a valid cause to start an uprising, like Caesar does in that film, it would be Nim. Born in captivity, he is ripped from the arms of his mother when he is just two weeks old. A Columbia University professor wants to study Nim and see what the effect would be to raise him with a human family to see if he can be taught language. So, he places Nim in a family in New York, with many kids already, and Nim seems happy. But, the family has no rules, no boundaries, and it wasn’t conducive to scientific study, so he takes Nim away, and moves him to a large house, and brings in various teachers. He places a 19 year old student, who he is sleeping with, in charge. Again, Nim seems happy there for a time. He is picking up hands signals and learning sign language. He spends all of his time around people, and none around other chimps. After 4 years of this, the professor decides his study is over, and ships Nim back to the monkey research facility where he was born. Although Nim was never human – he remained an animal, despite all his contact with humans – he is now in a place where he knows no one, and is much smarter than the other monkeys. He tries to use his sign language with them, and he gets nothing but blank stares. Of course Nim becomes depressed. And that’s just the beginning of his ordeal.

Directed by James Marsh, Project Nim is a heartbreaking documentary. Anyone who has ever had a pet knows that animals have real feelings and develop real attachments to those they are around day in and day out. To first rip Nim away from his mother at just two weeks old was cruel. To rip him out of the hands of the family he was living with, and getting along with, was also cruel. To train him to communicate, use him for purely scientific research, and then dump him back with other chimps, ripping him away from everything he knows, is crueler still. That Nim became depressed was inevitable. That later on, he could sometimes become violent, is understandable. He’s a powerful animal who was let down by everyone he ever loved.

What was the purpose of all of this? To test Hebert Terrace’s theory about nature vs. nurture. If the chimp could learn to communicate, to overcome his nature, by his interactions with humans, it could prove a lot. Did it? No. The results were inconclusive, essentially confirming what you or I could tell you without subjecting a poor chimp like Nim to this cruel treatment – that although chimps share much in common with humans, they are not humans. Bravo! I think that many of us accept the idea of animal testing, although we are uncomfortable with it, because it helps to save human lives. But what exactly did this project accomplish? It didn’t help humans out very much, except to prove what we already knew, and didn’t help poor Nim out at all. It’s just cruel.

The film was directed by James Marsh, whose last documentary was Man on Wire, beloved by many (although personally, I thought it was completely over rated). Here, Marsh makes no attempt to try to be neutral and unbiased. With his somber score, he is trying to pull on your heartstrings, and he certainly manipulates you into thinking a certain way about Nim’s story. I don’t mind that – all documentaries do this to one degree or another, Marsh is just more up front about it. And it’s impossible not to feel for poor Nim. I’ll you something, if the monkeys ever do rise up against us, it won’t be without cause.

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