One of my giant pet peeves about documentaries, especially talking heads documentaries, is when the filmmakers don’t interview a person I perceive to be germane to the story the film is telling. That certainly happens in Project Nim but I think that’s the point. The movie is about scientists in the ‘70s trying to teach a chimpanzee how to sign. Obviously, the most important testimonial you would want in a doc like this would be from the chimp, which you can’t get. But the movie is less about the retelling of a science experiment from 40 years ago and more about how people project what they see and feel onto animals. It’s fascinating to hear the various caretakers in the life of this chimp discuss the animal and say with absolutely certainty what he was thinking and feeling and how if he could speak he would have said he wanted to stay with them. Everyone of these people had been attacked by the animal at some point, many severely, but that doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t be raised by humans, no, he just doesn’t understand his own strength, and besides, he always signs “Sorry” after he does it.
I have two cats, I like to think that they love me, I have no idea if they are even capable of that emotion specifically in an inter species sense and sometimes I wonder if it’s wrong to take them away from their parents and species. But cats are domesticated, chimps are wild, and the people in this movie seem unwilling to accept the difference. Project Nim reminded me of a remarkable scene in Shoah, the 10-hour documentary about Holocaust survivors. In the scene a survivor returns to his hometown for the first time since the war. He is greeted by a group of people he knew before and they gather around him and tell the cameras what it was like during the Nazi purge of Jews in their town. The man himself is being discussed as if he’s not even there when he could provide the greatest insight, having been subject to that purge. He stands there, with a look of bemusement on his face that just may say “I didn’t exist to them then, why would I exist to them now?”
Of course, I’m projecting that thought on to the man, he doesn’t say that, and the people in Project Nim do nothing but project their thoughts onto the chimp. The story gets sadder and sadder as it becomes clear that while he may know 100 plus words in sign language a) it’s not certain how much of that really truly understands and b) those skills do him much less good than they do the self-important people who taught them to him. As the animal gets shuffled around and becomes more and more aggressive and when the originator of the project reveals his findings as inconclusive, one can’t help but wonder, who is this benefitting? In what appreciable way is this creature better off for having gone through this? The movie is really about human arrogance in science and is quite good.