The Third day: Project NIM
In 1973 a psychologist-behaviorist Herbert Terrace from the University of Columbia (in the film he is friendly called Herb) wanted to know if a chimpanzee could learn human language in the case it’s grown up among humans. He put a newborn chimpanzee to a large family of his friend and soon started to teach him sign language. Terrace’s aim was to prove Noam Chomsky’s theory wrong. This theory claims the language is inherent only in humans and grammar is built up in our genes. Chimpanzee Nim has learnt 125 signs and was able to ask for a banana or a cat to hug. But it turned to be he only proved the Homskiy’s theory right because there were no grammar formed up in his sentences. Though the scientific view on this story doesn’t interest James Marsh much (as well as Elisabeth Hess whose book the film is based on). He even exaggerates Nim’s achievements in language because he is producing not a science film but a biography. When it was clear the experiment turned unsuccessful and Nim got grown up enough to become dangerous for his teachers he was taken to the apery. This had to be the end of the story, but for Marsh it’s only the beginning. And the saying of a student looking after Nim: “the years spent with him were the best in my life” is a million times more significant here then Terrace’s statement of “unsuccessful” experiment. Marsh has a surprisingly sensitive camera. A character has just appeared on the screen and hasn’t said a couple of words but we already know if we like him or not. Here are no off-screen commentary, no author’s prompting, only speaking heads and archive footage. And still it’s a very emotional film. Of course it is genetically inherent in people like grammar to be touched by animals. But Nim isn’t a sweet kitty. He was brought up like a human child: he was pampered, breastfed, he smoked weeds and fondled the cat but he grew up into an ape and in fact could knock somebody off if angry. And then he was – now like an ape – thrown into a cage. There are tears on the screen. Nim’s “sister” from his human family says when the children were upset and shrank into a corner to howl Nim came up to them, sat aside, hugged and took the tears away with the kisses. And after all these there are dreadful squeals and horror when they tried to bring him together with his congeners grown up in captivity. "I thought satisfaction of the basic instincts was the most important for him ", - Herb Terrace says and smiles the way we understand at once we don’t like him. The characters lift their hands in dismay: "What do you want, this was in 70-s”. The time of experiments including ones at yourself and groping the borders of yourself, of your sexuality for example (we can see Nim feeling his foster mother Susan’s body on the archive footage) and first of all of your own humanity. Philippe Petit, the main character of the previous Marsh’s film “Man on wire” (awarded with the Oscar in 2009 for the best documentary) has told he decided to perform a show on a wire stretched between the twin towers of the World Trade Center because the towers “fell out of the human dimension system”. And Marsh tries to answer the question what is this human dimension system in every film. Nim has emotions, character, biography, he can apologize and tenderly loves animals, he gets sincerely attached and doesn’t forget anything. It almost resembles something of Tchukovskiy: if your monkey smokes cigarettes and nearly speaks Turkish do we have a right to send him out to his Africa, i.e. cage.