From the Oscar-winning team behind Man on Wire comes the compelling story of Nim, the chimpanzee who became the focus of a controversial experiment which aimed to show that a chimp could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child.
Project Nim: The Human Chimp is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature – and indeed our own – is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling.
November 1973: A baby chimpanzee is born in a cage at a primate research center in Oklahoma. A few days later, his mother is knocked down by a tranquilizer dart, her screaming baby seized from her and placed into the waiting arms of his new human “mother,” a graduate student of psychology with three children of her own.
Thus begins "Project Nim" arguably the most radical experiment of its kind, which aimed to show that a chimpanzee could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Under the auspices of a psychology professor at Columbia University, the chimp would be taught the sign language of the deaf and it was hoped he would soon acquire enough words and grammar to tell us what he was thinking and feeling. If successful, the consequences would be profound, forever breaking down the barrier between man and his closest animal relative and fundamentally redefining what it is to be human.
Sucking on his pacifier, baby Nim gazes into his new mother’s eyes just as her own babies had, and the bond between them is immediate. He is clothed and taken to his human family’s large house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to begin his new life, where he is breast fed and toilet trained as if he were one of the family. Within a few months, he is confidently communicating his desires in sign language, all the while wrecking the house and seemingly intent on wrecking the human relationships within it. The documentary also explores the human power struggles over the experiment and Nim’s future — struggles that often don’t serve Nim’s interests.
Cunning, mischievous and increasingly strong, Nim outgrows his first family and is then adopted by a succession of young female students who live with him in a large mansion then owned by Columbia University. Nim’s animal nature continues to emerge strongly and, though often affectionate and playful, he can’t help but attack any human he perceives as weak. Bites become commonplace, and at the age of five, with a vocabulary of over 120 words, Nim’s spell in human society, with all the privileges that involves, is prematurely curtailed. The experiment is abandoned and Nim is taken back to the primate research center in Oklahoma to learn, the hard way, how to live among his own kind. With his communication skills intact, Nim also makes lifelong friends with some of the human staff and even gets to drink the odd beer and smoke the occasional joint with them. But the center is running out of funds and, within a few years of his arrival, Nim is quietly sold into medical research and to his fate in a small and isolated cage in a lab in upstate New York.
News of his predicament soon filters through to several members of his human “family”, who then set about trying to free him with the help of significant press interest and a maverick lawyer. The outcome is not what anyone involved expected. Nim is bought by a high-profile animal rights activist who, in a flourish of self-publicity, takes him to his animal sanctuary in Texas. But with no chimps or signing humans for companionship there, Nim finds himself more isolated and lonely than ever. It’s not long before Nim’s human advocates must come to his rescue again.
Combining the testimony of all the key participants, newly discovered archival film and dramatic imagery, Project Nim: The Human Chimp follows one chimpanzee's extraordinary journey through human society and the enduring impact he makes on the human characters he meets along the way.
Directed by James Marsh (Man on Wire) and produced by Simon Chin. A Red Box Films production in association with Passion Pictures for BBC and the UK Film Council.
Director of Photography
Original Music by
Maureen A. Ryan
Based on the book