| Border crossings
Project Nim is a startling and upsetting new documentary by James Marsh (of the 2008 Oscar winner Man on Wire) about a Seventies experiment to test whether other primates, namely chimps, can communicate in language. The chimp, given the name "Nim Chimsky," was taken from his mother at an Oklahoma primate farm at the age of two months and given to a middle class New York City family to raise like a human child. The experiment was arranged by behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace of Columbia University, whose methodology now seems questionable, to say the least. Despite the way Nim's caretakers and teachers bonded with him and loved him, the project was a disaster both for them and for the chimp. Marsh gathers a wealth of information through films of the time and present day interviews to show the project's impact, and the sad life of Nim, who was cast off when the project went awry.
This is a fascinating story, but the documentary slights its scientific side. Marsh is more interested in the emotional and psychological aspects of the project scientific and linguistic ones. He's particularly concerned with the lack of a sense of human-primate borders exhibited by all concerned -- and the emotional and physical toll that carelessness took. And this is important, but Terrace's work is not fully explained nor is the project set in its larger context. It's not mentioned that "Nim Chimsky" referred to Noam Chomsky, the leading authority on linguistics whose theory that only humans are capable of syntactic language was being challenged by experiments like Project Nim and also the earlier project with another chimp named Washoe.
A Seventies lack of boundaries is reflected in the way Stephanie LaFarge took Nim into her bourgeois Upper West Side brownstone and she and a teenage daughter raised the chimp like a son and brother. LaFarge even breastfed the chimp. LaFarge hadn't even consulted with her husband or the children beforehand about whether to take on this experiment. Terrace, a mustachioed man with a comb-over, emerges as the villain of the piece, a womanizer and absentee manager who was regularly photographed with Nim but did not participate in the rearing and teaching. Terrace arbitrarily terminates the project after Nim becomes dangerous and funds grow low, without apparently consulting with the women who are emotionally and professional invested in Project Nim.
Marsh's focus on the emotional and sociological aspects of the story makes it compelling, though it may frustrate viewers whose interest is in the scientific and linguistic issues. American Sign Language was used for Nim as it was for Washoe because chimps can't vocally imitate human speech, but how well Nim communicated is rather hastily considered, and what role vocal communication with the chimp might have played is overlooked. The continuity of the story is increased by a wealth of videos of Nim in various situations, with transitions smoothed by reenactments. (The latter are seamlessly introduced, but can blur the boundary between the known and the imagined aspects of past events.)
Things like the breastfeeding, the raising of a captive chimp as a human, and the project director's sexual interaction with some of the women participants, not to mention the dope smoking with Nim, especially when he is later returned to the primate farm in Oklahoma, are all explained by interviewees with the phrase, "It was the Seventies." Following upon the Washoe story, the Nim project got plenty of publicity and Terrace's forceful manner allowed him to have his way with the ladies -- another situation more Seventies than present-day.
Wearing diapers at first as well as suits of clothes while being taught words in sign language, Nim otherwise behaved like a spoiled child. He seems to have exhibited hostility and jealousy from the start. At the West Side brownstone, he tried to come between Stephanie LaFarge and her husband, doing his best to keep the latter out of the picture.
Later, Terrace decides the Upper West Side environment is too undisciplined and has Nim moved to a vacant mansion formerly occupied by the president of the university. Laura-Ann Petitto is now Nim's chief teacher and surrogate mother there, and other graduate students also participate. Here the training may have been more controlled, but the environment, though posh, may have been lonelier for Nim and as he gorws bigger and more.
While not outright hostile, the caretakers appear today to be resentful toward Herb Terrace
When Terrace dumps Nim and declares the project a failure he is drugged and taken back to Oklahoma in a small chartered plane -- to live with other chimps (he's never seen any), in a cage. The transition was grim. But here again Nim is adopted by a couple (or they became one: it was the Seventies), this time people with more experience with chimps, who took him out and played with him and even occasionally got stoned with him. The story goes on and on, following through to Nim's final days at Black Beauty Ranch, a Texas haven for damaged animals founded by Cleveland Amory of the Fund for Animals. Visits showed that he never forgot the signs or his caretakers, but regarded them with very mixed feelings. As Variety's Peter Debruge has written, Nim got moved around from place to place a "staggering" number of times and his story takes on a dark "Dickensian" aspect. Fortunately Nim's final years at the Texas refuge seem to have been not too bad, but his life is a story of increasing confinement.
Marsh also went back to the Seventies and its rule-breaking aspects in his Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire. But Man on Wire, with its story of the French rebel tight rope walker Philippe Petit, provides an experience that's both suspenseful and thrilling; Project Nim is a downer of a story that leaves one feeling dispirited. Perhaps it's even more of a downer because the story's scientific context is slighted. Make no mistake, though, despite its special focus, Project Nim is a documentary that provides a thorough investigation of the human and chimp story with a wealth of material and deeply revealing interviews. It is likely to be one of the year's best and most memorable documentaries.
Project Nim debuted at Sundance in January 2011 and was released July 8, 2011 in the US, August 12 in the UK.
Copyright © by Chris Knipp
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