Project Nim

Sat Mar 23, 9.30-11.05pm, BBC2

The showmanship of James Marsh, director of ‘Man on Wire’, knows no bounds, to the point where his flamboyant style often clouds the fundamental issues they raise. His latest doc, produced in association with ‘Storyville’, offers a head-spinning array of dramatic inserts, busy infographics and a hip soundtrack – not things you’d generally associate with a sober, in-depth study of linguistics. Still, almost despite itself, ‘Project Nim’ remains a fascinating chronicle of dashed intellectual enquiry, the hazards of anthropomorphism and the nostalgic beauty of analogue recording devices.

Via home movie cine-footage and contemporary interviews, it takes a look at the sad life of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who, in the early ’70s, was secured by a Columbia University researcher who specialised in animal cognition – to be the subject of a radical experiment looking into the possibilities of human-animal dialogue.

Nim is brought up in a liberal New York household and the young, idealistic researchers fall head-over-heels in love with the cute little tyke, a love that is clearly reciprocated. Yet, as he grows older, wiser and stronger, the parent-child power relationship alters and Nim’s savage, unknowable interior begins to emerge.

Marsh shows great empathy for his ‘hero’, and when Nim’s later life takes a number of tragic twists, they feel all the more upsetting given the scientists’ cavalier methodology. Despite not being able to grasp basic human grammar, perhaps Nim was unwittingly conditioned into understanding the concept of love.