Directed by James Marsh, Project Nim is the story of Nim, a chimpanzee taken from his mother by force in 1973 and transformed into the subject of a language project headed by Prof. Herbert Terrace of Colombia University. The documentary follows Nim’s life as he learns under the instruction of his teachers, is bounced around from home to home and ultimately becomes a victim of scientific study.
Nim’s life is shown in chronological order. Terrace begins the study in 1973 — Nim is taken from his mother at a primate research centre in Oklahoma and raised as a human child to see whether or not he can acquire language like humans do.
Stephanie Lafarge is Nim’s first caregiver. The primate lives with her and her family until Terrace realizes that the way Lafarge is raising Nim is atypical. Nim was rarely disciplined and was often allowed to smoke joints and drink alcohol — not the way humans would normally raise a human child.
Nim then has a series of teachers pass through his life, each of them adding new words to Nim’s rapidly expanding sign-language vocabulary. Most of these teachers inevitably leave the project after some episode of violence from Nim.
We follow Nim after he has become too big for the experiment to continue. He is forced back into primate life after years of living as a human, subjected to medical testing and then “saved,” only to end up in further confinement. Nim’s only steady friend and advocate throughout the last half of his life is Bob Ingersoll, whom Nim meets after being abandoned by the research team. Ingersoll sticks with Nim and ensures that the last years of his life are happy ones by helping to bring a pair of other chimpanzees to live with Nim.
One of my favorite things about this film is the way Marsh presented the clips and interviewed his subjects. Despite the fact that this is a documentary about a scientific experiment, he focused very little on the scientific — instead deciding to zero in on the emotional side of the issue. Few people at the time of the experiment publicized anything but the scientific aspects of the project. This film provides the realization that Terrace inadvertently conducted an experiment in human and primate emotion, as well as a scientific language study.
In the end, I am torn about about Project Nim. While the presentation of the story and the emotions of the people (and animals) involved was admirable and well laid out, the subject of the film made me uncomfortable to the point of disgust.
It seems very sad to me that the nature vs. nurture debate was finally resolved (in my view) at the expense of a being with no say in the matter. However, this could have been the reaction the director was going for in the first place. This one heartbreaking story could represent the larger issue at hand: the tendency of the human species to want to make others “like us,” and our sometimes complete lack of respect for the species we mark as “unintelligent” or “lesser.”
Perhaps, instead of trying to force chimpanzees to be like us, we need to learn to be more like them. I think Ingersoll finally gets it right, as the last of Nim’s true friends: “Chimps aren’t humans. You have to understand chimps to understand how to work with them and be with them.” Ingersoll never tries to change Nim; he realizes that a true friendship can only come through acceptance and understanding.
The example he sets is one we should all try to learn from.
Project Nim will be playing at the Cinematheque theatre from Nov. 2-11, with showtimes at 7 p. m., Friday and Saturday nights additional showtimes at 9 p.m..