“Project Nim” also happens to be the title of the smart and provocative new documentary by James Marsh, (“Man on Wire”).
Nim Chimpsky is a chimpanzee who, two weeks after being born, was wrenched from his mother and raised as a human child using sign language to communicate. The project was initiated in 1973 by Columbia University behavioral psychologist, Herb Terrace.
Stephanie LaFarge, a former student and lover of Terrace’s, becomes Nim’s first surrogate mother. The chimp is happy cradling with LaFarge, playing with childrens, cats and dogs. He even learns to use the potty and slowly but surely develops a functional vocabulary.
His progress is a little too slow for Terrace, however, who removes Nim from the LaFarge family and places him at Delafield Estate in the Bronx where he has wide open yards and forests to play in. There Nim is overseen by Laura-Ann Petitto, who lays out a structured day for the animal, exponentially increasing his vocabulary and social skills.
However, Petitto and Terrace have a falling out after a few sexual encounters and she is sent packing to be replaced by Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan. The young researchers soon become romantically involved and forge a block against Terrace, who seems more interested in publicity than research.
Eventually he dispenses with them and brings in Renee Falitz, an interpreter for the deaf whose right cheek is nearly ripped off by Nim in a display of aggression.
At the age of five, Nim is considered too dangerous for the experiment to continue and is returned to the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma where his life began. Unaccustomed to his own kind, (let alone living in a cage) Nim falls into a deep depression and later dies of a heart attack in 2000.
In the end, after analyzing five years of data, Herb Terrace pronounced the experiment a failure. While Nim had developed an extensive vocabulary and understanding of his surroundings and the people who inhabit them, he never got beyond the begging stage. That is, his actions were primarily geared toward reward in some fashion or another.
How is that so unlike humans? Such a strange conclusion for Terrace to reach; such a strange experiment to conduct. The whole idea seems predicated on the belief that chimps are capable of exhibiting more human-like qualities than we realize. If that’s true, than wouldn’t separating baby Nim from his mother contaminate the experiment from the outset?
Normal human children are not wrenched from their mother within weeks of birth. Normal human children are not swung about from caretaker to caretaker on the whim of a project leader who can’t seem to separate his private life from his professional life.
Eventually Nim winds up in a facility for animal testing, abandoned by all his caretakers. From there he is rescued by Bob Ingersoll, a psych graduate at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma.
A pot-smoking fan of the Grateful Dead, Ingersoll and Nim get high and focus on the most important word in a chimp’s vocabulary: play. Together, they run through forests, wrestle in the grass and enjoy a picnic in the sunshine.
If this movie has a hero other than Nim himself, it’s Ingersoll who now oversees a sanctuary for recovering research primates.
“Project Nim” is a fascinating study of humanity and ego from a chimp’s point of view. Marsh lays out his information in chronological order using a mix of media from still photos to archive films to contemporary interviews and newsreel.
While Nim is portrayed as a victim, Marsh refrains from pointing the finger at any of those involved. The team behind Project Nim showed him affection but not love. Among other things they showed him selfishness, pettiness, recklessness and cruelty. Of course, in the end it’s not what they taught Nim, it’s what he taught us about ourselves.
**** (out of four)
Check out the trailer @ www.project-nim.com
Project Nim is out in theatre in Ireland and UK, 12 August 2011.