Monday, 13 June 2011



"Why are people so unkind?" It's a question that iconic Australian singer Kamahl once asked, and one which has yet to be satisfactorily answered other then with the old fall back of "human nature". Why we are even more unkind, which is to say downright cruel, to animals is usually (un)answered by an even less convincing mindset: we're top of the food chain.

The recent Four Corners expose of the brutal treatment of Australian cattle in Indonesia was horrifying proof-positive that humans have an unhealthy disregard for the lives and welfare of our beastly brethren, whether for food, service or domestic companionship.

Project Nim, directed by James Marsh who made the award-winning Man On Wire, doesn't highlight human nature quite as evil as that in Indonesia, but does reveal how horrible, careless and oblivious we can be towards the welfare and emotions of those animals we interact with.

Nim Chimpsky was a young chimpanzee, plucked from his mother soon after birth in 1972 and used in research by Professor Herbert Terrace to reveal if the primate could learn to communicate via sign language. First raised in a New York family home, then a sprawling estate outside of that city, Nim does indeed learn a vocabulary of words through hand signals. He also bonds with his carers (who, in present day talking heads interviews, give their account of events), and they with him, but Nim doesn't lose his instinctive chimp nature.

His carers, however, only seem to remember Nim is an animal when it suits them. And when Terrance doesn't get the results he'd hoped for, five years into the project, he callously returns Nim to the compound from whence he was removed as an infant; expected to simply return to life as a chimpanzee as though he hadn't been raised to be anything but.

What follows is harrowing though ultimately heartening story spanning a quarter century. Not surprisingly, Terrace's research (and Marsh's film) reveals far more about human nature than his subject's ability to mimic it. But those with a low tolerance for cruelty to animals, or those who inflict it, may find Project Nim a tough watch.

The State Theatre screening of Project Nim received the loudest applause I've heard at the Festival so far this year. I don't know what that means in terms of quality or prizes (Audience Award?), but good word of mouth will certainly help the documentary when Icon Film Distribution releases it later this year.

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