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And yet, the film humanises Nim in our eyes too, so when he is sold on to a medical research establishment, we identify not with the human scientists but with the apes.If this 1970s experiment reveals that era’s confusion about where apes end and humans begin, the film says much about today’s ambivalent attitudes too.It is an ideal that sits well in their hippy era and milieu.
One minute he is a spoilt pet with the run of a country house, the next he is in a cage with other chimpanzees, a social group he has never learned to live in.
So, while we are invited to empathise with the humans, still crying all these years later as they recall leaving Nim in his cage, it also implicitly criticises them for having taught him to live around humans and then thrown him back in with the other experimental subjects.
This investigation into human nature happened in revolutionary France—supported by a grant—and aspired to prove that the most savage human being had the potential to be civilised—that human potential outstrips what initial circumstances endow on us, and that we are all capable of learning not only the superficial trappings of human society but to be free, moral agents.
Through the prism of 1970, the 1798 experiment looks cruel at times, but though Dr Itard treats Victor harshly, he sees the fellow human in him.
It was based on the idea that nurture alone is responsible for making us human—that even an ape can have essentially human characteristics if it is reared with humans.
Though the film, with 21st century eyes, is critical of confusing chimpanzee nature with human nature because of its adverse effects on Nim’s happiness, it does not entirely reject the basis of the failed experiment.The educator’s struggle to turn a wild child into a full member of human society, and the implicit faith that we are all capable, given the right conditions, of thus flourishing, is an echo of Enlightenment optimism in 20th century France.By contrast, the Project Nim experiment saw the capacity for language as not uniquely human.Nim’s first surrogate mother, Stephanie Lafarge, takes the baby chimp into her home like another baby, changing its nappies, dressing it and even breastfeeding the animal for several months.The film is a mixture of interviews, archive footage.Dr Itard wants to teach Victor language not to see the world through the eyes of a boy who survived in the forest for 10 years, but to equip him to communicate with the wider world and—crucially—to be able to ask for things which are not in front of his eyes.He is thrilled by Victor’s spontaneous tool making, when the boy fashions a chalk-holder, but even more thrilled when he shows that Victor has developed a sense of justice and thus become ‘a moral being’.Marsh’s interviews reveal just how emotionally involved the humans became with Nim, but the story itself is told as a biography of the chimp.So, it is impossible to avoid seeing how the contradictions of the human attitudes to the ape—treating it like a baby and then like the dangerous animal it is—added to Nim’s distress.Both—in strikingly parallel scenes—love to be wheeled around at high speed, Nim in a child’s pushchair and Victor in a wheelbarrow.But there are vital differences in the two experiments.