Project Nim, 93 mins, rated TBA, opens in cinemas 29 September 2011.


(This is my review as published in the Oct 2011 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal)

In 2008, director James Marsh won an Academy Award for Man on Wire, an absolutely compelling documentary film about Philippe Petit’s incredible high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in 1974. Marsh’s conceit was to film the story as a crime thriller – a caper film – in which everything leads up Petit’s amazing feat.

Now Marsh has made another documentary with a twist: this time it’s about a chimpanzee.

Like Marsh, I was vaguely aware of the 1970s psychological experiment in which a chimpanzee called Washoe was taught sign language by a husband-and-wife team. But another ambitious experiment was led in the 1970s by Columbia University behavioural psychologist Herbert Terrace, involving a chimp called Nim.

Terrace believed that language is learnt – and could even be learnt by chimpanzees. He wanted to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that the grammar of language was unique to the human brain. Terrace planned to teach a chimp sign language (chimps don’t have the vocal abilities of humans) in order to prove they could master syntax, using language as humans do.

Terrace arranged with the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma for a chimp to be taken from his mother soon after birth, and sent to live with a family in New York City. The chimp was Nim – Nim Chimpsky – a jocular reference to Noam Chomsky (curiously, the film doesn’t make this connection).

Director James Marsh read Elizabeth Hess’s 2008 book:  Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, and decided to make what he calls a “behavioural biography” of the chimpanzee, applying biographical film techniques to tell the life story of an animal. That film is fascinating, often funny, sometimes shocking, and ultimately moving. Although it is the story of Nim’s life, the parallel story of the psychologist Terrace, the graduate students who work on Project Nim, and the other humans in Nim’s life, is equally fascinating and at times astonishing.

Terrace and his team prove to be distinctly under-qualified in the area of animal behaviour. No one seems to have understood that chimpanzees live in groups and are very social creatures. No one seemed to realize how big and strong Nim would become. And crucially, no one planned for the time – in five years  – when Project Nim was over, and Nim was no longer needed. These days, universities have ethics committees to oversee experiments in animal behaviour, but with Project Nim there was nothing to protect Nim from being used and abused.

Nim’s first human “mother,” Stephanie, took Nim into her family, even going so far as to breastfeed him (“It was the 70s,” explains her daughter!). She taught Nim sign language, but kept no notes or records, so experimental rigor was lacking. This caused rivalry between Stephanie and Nim’s next “mother,” Laura, both of whom had had close personal relationships with Herbert Terrace. Terrace admits that he “unconsciously” took advantage of “it” (presumably meaning that he was in charge of a cute little chimpanzee, and needed caring women to work with him).

As fascinating as all this is, the film ultimately falls into the trap of leaving unexplored and unanswered the intriguing questions raised in the first part of the film: of nature vs nurture, and what language is. Is using language exclusive to humans? If chimps feel emotion, does that make them “human”?

Ultimately the story takes a melancholy turn, as we focus on Nim’s sad fate. At this point a Boston lawyer named Henry Herrmann steps in to save Nim from being sold to a medical research facility. His plan is to treat Nim as a human client, and allow him to “speak” for himself in court. Unfortunately for us, the case doesn’t get to that point. Still, Herrmann manages to save Nim from further experimentation, and animal rights activists get involved. Eventually one of Nim’s most sympathetic handlers takes responsibility for Nim’s welfare.

Herbert Terrace himself eventually declared Project Nim a failure, concluding that Nim was not really communicating, but only mimicking his trainers in order to beg. But the more fascinating issue that no one – except the lawyer Henry Herrmann – seems to have focused on, is whether Nim was a sentient being, entitled to legal rights, including to be protected from scientific research. In the developing field of Animal Law, we just beginning to grapple with those questions.