The Secret of Nim, by David Bax
Most likely, there will be plenty of people lining up to see James Marsh’s fantastic new documentary, Project Nim, either in whole or in part because they simply think chimpanzees are cute. This possibility has not been lost on those marketing the film. The poster features a young chimp reaching up to hold the outstretched hand of a human. It’s adorable, if you’re into that kind of thing. If you are, this film, which chronicles the troubled life of a chimp named Nim who was inducted at the age of six weeks into a sociological experiment, will make you reexamine exactly why you think animals are cute.
Smaller animals or, in Nim’s case, a young animal who is small for the time being, are considered cute perhaps because of how helpless and relatively harmless they are. They are completely dependent and that is endearing. When Nim is sent to live with a white, bourgeois New York family, the mother becomes exceedingly invested in him, maybe because he needs her so much. Do we love our pets more because their reliance on us is an ego boost?
Nim’s experiment was meant to address the nature vs. nurture debate, to discover how well a chimp could be socialized in the ways of people when raised completely in the company of humans. Project Nim, on the other hand, address the nature and nurturing techniques of parents. Nim cycles through many different caretakers, or “parents,” over the course of his life. A pattern develops. In almost every occasion, the decisions made that are ostensibly for the good of Nim are, just below the surface, really made to serve those making them. These people, and perhaps all parents in general, raise their charge in such a way that reinforces their own worldview or what they would like their worldview to be. It has been said before that children are born inherently selfish, incapable of empathy. As this film illustrates, selfishness may be a trait we never really outgrow, passing it down subconsciously to those we influence.
Parenting traits that are commonplace and seemingly inherent are exacerbated by the era in which the film takes place. Marsh’s film never becomes didactic about the 1970’s but manages to suggest strongly the ways in which the “Me Decade” failed Nim. The stated intent to socialize the chimp was frustrated at every turn, in one way or another, by a society that was too often gazing inward to coherently socialize even itself. If Terrence Malick’s recent The Tree of Life contains an indictment of too-strict, fascistic parenting then Project Nim serves as the other side of the coin, detailing the consequences of permissive, laissez-faire parenting.
Shockingly, all these years later and in the face of the evidence of Nim’s life, the people interviewed display an almost disturbing lack of self-awareness about their culpability. The footage Marsh has compiled speaks to the nature side of the nature vs. nurture debate, detailing that, despite everyone’s efforts, the fact that Nim was a wild and aggressive animal could not be overcome. Yet many of those who knew him continue to speak about him as though he were human, even when recounting his outbreaks of violence or sexual aggression.
The aforementioned footage is what makes the documentary feel so complete, so immersive. Clearly, a lot of people were filming Nim as he grew up. Some of this footage was made for clinical and study purposes. Some are home movies, just like one would have of her or his baby’s first steps and so forth. Much of it, like much of Nim’s early life in general, blurs the line. Nim was treated, often simultaneously, as a subject of analysis and as an adored child. It’s hard to tell which of these two things did him more harm but the lack of boundary between them was certainly not helpful.
There are other chimpanzees seen in the film. Many of them lead far worse lives than Nim did. All of them suffered, in one way or another, at the hands of humans. These people weren’t torturers or sadists. To a person, each of them was sure he or she was doing what was right. Ultimately, we come away from Project Nim with a devastating lesson about the nature of our nurture. Human beings tend to fuck up the things we’re meant to take care of.