James Marsh returned to Edinburgh International Film Festival last month with his sophomore feature documentary, Project Nim. His last film, Man on Wire, which saw Frenchman Philippe Petit tightrope walk across New York City’s Twin Towers, had its European Premiere at the same festival in 2008 and went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary. I caught up with the Oscar-winner to find out more about the life and times of Nim Chimpsky.
“Project Nim is the story about a chimpanzee that’s taken from its family when it’s born and given to a human family to bring up as if it were a human child,” says Marsh. “The idea is to see if it can learn language in the way that human children do. In a sense it’s about nature and nurture: a chimp has a certain nature, so what will come out when he’s brought up a human being will be very interesting. The film takes that idea and then follows this chimpanzee from the moment he’s born until he dies.”
Drawing upon a wealth of archive footage from the 1970s language experiment led by Dr Herbert Terrace at Colombia University, Marsh tells the story of the beleaguered study that attempted to identify whether chimpanzees were able to understand and communicate using American Sign Language. Linguistics were at the heart of the study, but its trajectory took on a series of human-ape relationships with progressively more baffling, questionable, and dangerous consequences.
Alongside staged interviews with key characters — including the project director; the family with whom Nim first resided; and Nim’s human teachers — archive footage and voiceover narratives meld to give a bigger, more intense, and ultimately hindsight rich history of events. Is there a trick to to finding engaging interview subjects? “I think the reason they’re good storytellers is because this means something to them. They have a very strong memory of something that meant something to them in their lives,” says Marsh. “So there’s a big imprint of that story on them and I think that they’re able to tell that story well, but also to tell that with feeling and to connect back to how they felt at that time.” Indeed, as Nim is ushered from a private school all his own to an Oklahoma sanctuary, and eventually into horrific AIDS animal-testing labs, the timeline of the film grows dark. “Many of the people involved have a lot of regret about what happened and I think that also prompts them to be more confessional, perhaps, about what they went through while spending time with the chimpanzee.”
Taking a cinematic approach to documentary story-telling, Marsh weaves simple reconstructions with engrossing interviews to tell the life story of a subject that’s almost human. “We’re so often sentimental about animal’s behaviour and projecting things onto them. This was an attempt to see what the animal is actually like.” Marsh himself identifies with Nim on a close-to-human level “What I liked about Nim more than anything else that he showed me was that he is by nature a hedonist, and so am I. Therefore, we’re hard-wired, he and I. Nim likes to take drugs and smoke cigarettes when he can, and I’m the same.” Though there are more similarities of which to speak, doing so might spoil the surprise. “There’s some very big surprises in Nim’s story that I’d rather find out for yourself.”
Along with surprises, there are a number of elements of Nim’s story that Marsh is charged with missing out. As is inevitable in feature filmmaking, Marsh chose the human story of relationships with Nim over the scientific background of the experiment. Shrinking down the science has reportedly sparked aggrieved comments from Dr Terrace, but Marsh has confidence. “There were quite a few stories that, you know, you leave out because you’re trying to make a film efficient. If I’ve done my job right I’m telling you a story,” says Marsh, pointedly, “and if I told the story well enough it has many different ideas in it.”
Project Nim is released in US from Friday 8 July, and in UK cinemas on Friday 12 August.