For those who didn’t catch ‘Project Nim’ at the cinema 18 months ago, don’t miss your chance tonight on BBC2. Oscar-winning director James Marsh ('Man on Wire', 'The Team', 'Shadow Dancer') has pointed his compassionate, curious gaze on “a textbook footnote from the 1970s” - an experiment to see if a chimpanzee could be taught sign language and the rudiments of human grammar.
Nim was sent to live with the LaFarge family as part of an experiment in the 1970s
“I finished making the film two years ago,” says Marsh. “But the issues it raised remain in mind, and aren’t ones for which I feel any closure, nor any prospect of it, So, ‘Project Nim’ is always a delight to talk about.”
The film will stay with you, too, showing how cute little newborn chimp Nim was sent to live with the LaFarge family for five years and brought up as one of their own - from breast-feeding to sharing time at the dinner table. There was a huge amount of footage for Marsh to use - “a filmmaker’s delight” - but also some surprises...
Nim was a newborn when he moved in with the family
“He spent 5 years living with the family, and I uncovered footage of his first meeting with another chimpanzee,” remembers Marsh.
“He behaved like a child, a scared one. Because, although he had a sense of who he was, he knew he was a chimp, he just didn't realise there was anyone else like him. It makes fascinating, and moving, viewing.”
So did it ultimately work?
“The experiment in itself was a failure,” reports Marsh. “But the bigger experiment, one of communication, is one that deserves further exploration.”
The challenge for Marsh was to create a biopic, a life story around a chimp, but the director eschewed the usual cliches about how much animals are like humans, and vice versa.
Was the experiment a success? Yes and no
“We tend to sentimentalise, and over-anthropomorphise,” reflects Marsh today. “The film is essentially about the differences between us, not the overlap. But on the other hand, there were some moments of wonder beheld by Nim, and I found that immensely reassuring, that those instincts are not contained purely within humans.”
Is there any lesson to be taken for we of the homo sapien variety? Marsh hmms and offers,
“We see that nature is more powerful than nurture, and we forget this at our peril. Nim is ultimately a chimp, it is at the essence of his being.
In the same way, as a parent, we should remember that our children are beings in their own right, and avoid the temptation to project our volitions, our desires, our fears onto them.
“Hopefully, we can simply allow them to be. That’s what I came away feeling.”
BBC Films' Project Nim will be on at 9:30pm on BBC2 on Saturday 23 March. Watch the trailer below...