We got the last interview of the last day Man on Wire director James Marsh devoted to flaking his latest documentary. The story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimp ripped from his mother’s arms in the ‘70s to become the subject of an aborted sign language experiment, Project Nim is a sometimes funny, often horrifying parade of stupid human tricks, attempts at penance, and occasional acts of unalloyed kindness. Tired but engaging in our 20-minute talk, Marsh was a winning combination of nonjudgmental grace and forthright observations—especially while insisting that he’d never throw his shit at us.
You’re English, but all but one of your documentaries is set in America.
There’s a connection between those two things. I’m a sort of a refugee. I lived in New York for 14 years, and I live in Copenhagen now. As a filmmaker, one wants to look beyond the immediate horizons of the place where one lives, and I, of course found so much interesting culture, stories, whatever here. New York is the very first place I came to in America, and I totally adored it—thought I should actually have been born here. It became my second home.
At the same time, as an outsider, you’re responding to things with a slightly different kind of background and agenda. This film is a New York story and a very American story, but no one had yet to do it, so I came and did it. And I guess that’s true of other films I’ve done too.
Herb Terrace [the Columbia University scientist in charge of the Project Nim language experiment]—what a hissable villain. And some of the other people in the movie didn’t come off much better, yet they all seem so comfortable on camera, saying these often very self-incriminating things. How did you manage that?
I’m asking them to tell me their view of things, their recollection of things—I’m not asking them to judge themselves or to incriminate themselves. Clearly, some of the things that happen in the story don’t reflect terribly well on some of the people involved, but I’m not trying, in the film, to make a judgment about that. You can, as an audience member, and you should. But we try to tell a story that did happen, as opposed to one that didn’t happen or should have happened.
Also, people like talking about experiences that mean something to them. Sort of in line of what I’m doing here now. [Laughs] I think the people in this story, this relationship they had with the chimpanzee was very important to them and had a big impact on their lives, and they recall it with a great deal of detail, clarity and emotion.
Of course I pushed it into also the human relationships, and that got into a trust one had to establish with the people involved, so they were able to talk about these personal things. Not all of them did. Professor Terrace resisted talking about personal things. That was very revealing.
One of the things I found most interesting in Man on Wire was the group dynamics, the way the people on Petit’s team—his friends and especially his girlfriend—were drawn to his vision, which was so much stronger than their own, and then wound up feeling betrayed by him. There’s a similar dynamic in this movie, with all the faux families that form and disband around Nim, and the kind of shady sex.
Yes, even interspecies sex. Chimpanzee and cat, for example. [Laughs]
The reason it’s relevant in this story is these relationships that start and finish around Nim have an impact on his life. When both Stephanie and Laura end up leading the project or being kicked out of the project, it’s because of the complications they’re having with the authority figure, the professor, which are colored with the romantic and sexual dealings that have gone on.
Your film intentionally skirts the question of what scientists think they learned by teaching Nim sign language.
I don’t think it skirts it, but I think there’s much to say about it. One of the reasons the film skimps on the science is that the project was a failure. Well, not a failure: We learned something from it. But the experiment concludes that Nim is imitating using language very superficially for his own ends, not being grammatical with it.
Well, yes, Herb Terrace says that in the movie, but do you think he was right? I felt like there was plenty of room for other interpretations.
There are two things that I think about this, on reflection. One is that the question Terrace asked in his experiment was very narrow: Can a chimpanzee construct a sentence, i.e., use an exclusively human kind of grammatical construct? The answer to that, we find out, is probably not. The question being asked was not: Can we communicate with a chimpanzee? Can we have an exchange of ideas, a dialogue? And that does appear to be a much more open-ended and debatable question.
The other observation I had was that they spent four and a half years looking at this chimp, doing all this stuff, interacting with him, and no one said, “Guess what, he’s cheating.” Terrace looked at the data later and said, “Guess what, he’s having us on.” And yet all these humans were there, signing with this chimp and having these interactions and saying yes, this is working well. But then, they were perhaps blinded by their expectations and higher hopes.
The Clever Hans thing.
Yes, that’s exactly it. That you’re seeing what you want to see. But these are scientists, and therefore one would hope that they would be more sensitive to what’s going on. Perhaps.
So what do you think this experiment teaches us about our species, if not about language?
Well, that’s a very good question. There’s a debate about nature and nurture that’s dramatized in this chimpanzee’s early life. Can you take a creature that’s hardwired to behave a certain way and inhibit that behavior to allow him to live with us? I think we learn, from this part of the story, that nature will out, and that whatever kind of adjustments they try to make to Nim to change his behavior, it’s very superficial. Nature is a very, very powerful force in this chimpanzee’s life. And probably in our own too.
There’s an interesting quote at the end about how chimps are a forgiving species. Do you think we should be forgiven for what we’ve done to them?
Well, I’m not sure about that. But the idea is offered by the vet, Jim Mahoney [who did medical experiments on chimps for years before becoming an advocate for freeing primates from labs], and I think he would know, as someone who probably needs their forgiveness. I was wary of the idea of ascribing such a complicated mental attribute to a chimpanzee as the idea of forgiveness. But the way I would put it is, Nim does not bear grudges against people.
As you studied the footage of Nim, did you find yourself liking him?
I did. I liked him, but I wouldn’t want to meet him as a fully grown chimpanzee on my own. I would be scared of him, and he’d know that, and he would then monster me, or try to hump me, or something.
Before I made the film, I spent a couple days with chimpanzees here and in a place in Louisiana that I knew about, just to be near them. They try to entice you. They’ll put out a stick [through the bars of their cages] and try to invite you over to hang out with them. Of course, I knew by this point that one would never put your hand through a cage, but they’re always trying to get you to do that so they can bite you. Because they’re not really happy in cages. They don’t like it. They spit at you. They throw their shit at you. And can you blame them?
Yeah. It’s like prison.
Absolutely. Nim was treated like a prisoner who’s put in solitary confinement. That’s exactly what happened to him. The story of his life is one of increasing confinement and lack of freedom that gets progressively worse.
Who can blame them for being utterly pissed off about that and throwing their shit at us? I would do the same.
What struck me …
Well, no, I wouldn’t throw my shit at you. I wouldn’t be happy to see you, if you came to stare at me in a cage. But I wouldn’t throw my shit at you.
Well, hey, you can’t know until you’ve been there, right?
No, I take that back. I wouldn’t throw my shit at you. Or at anybody else.
Ok, I believe you. What struck me about this story was how it highlighted the arrogance and the ignorance of our species.
The word I’ve always thought of is hubris, which is the attempt to overreach on something that might be honorable, might be noble, might be worth doing. If there’s a sin here, it’s a sin of hubris.
In science, we need people to think big and boldly and imaginatively about the frontiers of knowledge, so I’m glad scientists ask these kinds of questions. But clearly there wasn’t any consideration of the chimp’s well-being. We owned him. We controlled him. And he was a sentient, intelligent creature. The question the film poses is: What responsibility do we have if that’s the relationship we have with him?
We don’t come off only badly, because it doesn’t end as badly as it might have done. Ultimately he is behind bars, but there’s an effort to understand what he might need. Jim Mahoney, the vet, actually becomes a heroic figure by providing Nim with chimpanzee companions he can live with and interact with. That’s what he needs. He doesn’t need people, at this point. They’ve let him down.