I’ve always wanted to attend a film festival, and with the annual Toronto International Film Festival happening every September, it hasn’t always been an opportune time for me to go. How perfect that the Art Gallery of Hamilton CIBC Wood Gundy Film Festival came along to help me fulfill that goal. The festival, which ran from September 23 – October 2, consisted of a variety of films, many of which have reached great acclaim, being featured at other prestigious festivals such as TIFF and Sundance. Being screened at various locations throughout the city and running the gamut from documentaries to fiction, I had a lot of options choose from.
I decided on the James Marsh-directed documentary Project Nim as my first screening. This powerful film chronicles a scientific experiment headed by Columbia University in the 1970s on a chimpanzee named Nim (full name Nim Chimpsky, a play on linguistics expert Noam Chomsky). The objective of the experiment was to test the theory of whether language can be taught to a chimp if it was raised and nurtured from birth as a human. By teaching a chimp sign language, it was then to be determined whether humans and chimps can communicate with each other in this way.
To raise Nim as a human child, he was taken away from his mother in the first heartbreaking scene of the film and placed into a large family, to be raised by a woman who treated him as one of her own. The film then follows Nim’s journey throughout his remaining years as he is taught how to communicate with sign language and is tossed around from place to place, many of his experimenters abandoning him along the way. The film showed not only the complicated relationships between Nim and his teachers, but the complicated human relationships as well, between the academics who dedicated their lives to this experiment. Hearing from all of the people who came in and out of Nim’s life, we get their perspectives on the project and, interspersed with real footage of Nim’s interactions with all of these humans, the results are conflicting and upsetting as the audience tries to make sense of their motives.
To Nim’s initial family, he seemed at first to be an adorable baby chimp and a fun playmate for the children; however, Nim soon becomes dangerous as he grows into an adult. Inevitably, the chimp’s animal instincts come out despite being raised as a human. His overpowering strength proves to be life threatening and he cannot possibly be contained.
In one of many heart-wrenching scenes, we see Nim’s trauma when he is introduced to other chimpanzees for the first time, as his current teachers abandon him. Having been raised as a human, Nim had never encountered his own species before, which is unthinkable for any species to have to go through.
From living with a family, to being passed onto academics in a stifling classroom, to living in a mansion as he is being taught to sign, to a primitive research center, to being sold to a medical research facility, to an animal sanctuary which only at first seems promising, Nim’s treatment at the hands of humans was an appalling, horrendous injustice. Towards the end of the film, one of Nim’s teachers sorrowfully states, “We did a huge disservice to that soul.” That statement, for me, summed up Nim’s existence, and it was heartbreaking.
Project Nim is an engaging, thought-provoking film, and comes highly recommended. It is a story that deserves to be heard.