Shining a light on the collateral damage caused by human ambitions is one of the many themes explored in the amazing documentary "Project Nim." Directed by James Marsh ("Man On Wire," "Red Riding 1980), "Project Nim" tells the affecting story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee that is removed from his mother at less than one week old and placed with a human mother in a landmark "nature vs. nurture" communication study. It's an intriguing and at times heartbreaking glimpse into scientific observation conducted by mortals whose grandiose ideals will later significantly impact the main character, Nim, the chimp.
Nature vs. Nurture - Communicating Through Sign Language
In 1973, Herbert Terrace, a Columbia University professor of behavioral psychology initiates a study of whether a chimp raised at birth by a human family could be taught to communicate through sign language. Making a deal with a primate research center in Oklahoma, Terrace "adopts" Nim for placement with his new human mother, graduate student Stephanie LaFarge. Stephanie is game to add Nim to her brood of three children, plus her poet husband Wer's four children. It's one big, 1970's-style, happy family (seven children, a dog, a cat, and a chimp) living on the upper west side of New York City.
Stephanie and her daughter, Jenny Lee, in their modern day interviews, are frank in their memories, admittedly with 20/20 hindsight. Jenny notes although she loved Nim at first sight, no one in the family was fluent in sign language, so they learned along with Nim. Stephanie looked at baby Nim as one of her own, even breastfeeding the chimp.
Sexual Hook-ups Create Twists and Turns in Nim's Study
Because of the study, there's plenty of archival film of Nim, which director Marsh uses to great affect. But a study is only as good as those conducting the tests, as we begin to see from the participants' testimony and Nim footage. Surrogate mother Stephanie is interested in Nim more on the social behavioral level, and isn't strict about keeping journals, logs, test data, etc. Enter Terrace's new psychology undergraduate and sexual fling, Laura-Ann Petitto. Laura implements standards for schooling Nim, and Stephanie instantly recognizes Laura as the new alpha-female in the Nim research, and in Nim's life.
Soon thereafter, Terrace takes Nim from Stephanie and places him into Laura's complete care at the Delafield Estate, a piece of property owned by Columbia. Laura becomes Nim's second surrogate mother, until things sour romantically between Terrace and Laura, and Laura leaves the project. Stephanie previously had an affair with Terrace as well. Terrace insists that these dalliances didn't affect the science of the study. But one wonders if these sexual couplings and splits, with Stephanie and Laura essentially "leaving" Nim, did affect the chimp.
Nim Entering Adulthood with Physical Hints of His Nature
Even though Nim is adorably dressed as a child, he still has wild animal instincts. In his film, Marsh is careful not to judge the study or its teachers. Instead, he lets the interviewees and footage speak for itself. Through the test films, Laura definitely makes strides with Nim and by the age of five he recognizes 120 words through signing. Whether he creates a sentence or just repetitively signs, it's unclear. His teachers, Joyce and Bill (formerly under Laura), and professional signer Renee, are also gung-ho about Nim. But Nim has a few too many vicious outbursts, and Terrace decides to terminate the tests and return the chimp back to the Oklahoma Primate Research facility.
The Cages Get Smaller for Nim's Later Years
Nim's whole life had been spent with humans; he'd never before seen chimps or been in a cage. It is a shattering wake-up call for Nim. Bob Ingersoll, one of the psychology graduates working at the Oklahoma Primate Institute, becomes Nim's worthy friend. Bob isn't interested in Nim's language, he just thinks Nim is cool to play with and be around. Bob remains in Nim's life through the good and bad years, during medical experiments, legal trials, and isolated animal sanctuaries. Bob truly cares for the chimp's quality of life.
"Project Nim" is a tale like no other. Director James Marsh does a striking job portraying Nim's world, giving a fair voice to all its participants. This cautionary tale is both a fascinating behavioral study of an animal, and indirectly, humans. 38 years later, "Project Nim" still resonates as a study and now as a spellbinding documentary.
"Project Nim" is 93 minutes and is Rated PG-13. It is playing in New York and Chicago and opens July 15 in Los Angeles and other cities.
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- the chimp
- Bob Ingersoll
- Surrogate mother
- Columbia University