Chimp experiment reveals human foibles in smart doc ‘Project Nim’
In 1973, some research scientists at Columbia University got a bright idea. They decided to raise an infant chimpanzee like a child, in the home of a human family, to see if it would be possible to teach him to communicate with sign language at the same rate that a human child learns language. “Wouldn’t it be great if we could find out what a chimp was thinking?” they wondered. “Wouldn’t it be a breakthrough in human-animal communication?”
Project Nim, the absorbing, often infuriating, always provocative new documentary about this chimp experiment poses another, equally compelling question: just how clueless does human science have to be?
The film is directed by James Marsh, who won an Oscar for another excellent doc, Man On Wire (about the French aerialist who tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers). As a documentarian, Marsh’s skill is to back off and let participants tell their own stories, from their own perspectives, with no prompting from him, and no imposed external narrative. Project Nim proceeds at a brisk clip from the mouths of various researchers and caregivers who were there, and while there’s plenty of film footage of real-life events (along with some unobtrusive re-enactments), the real drama unfolds in what participants reveal about themselves and their attitudes, caught in the act of spinning their stories for the public record.
At the heart of the story is “Nim Chimpsky” himself. The tiny chimp is just two weeks old when he’s wrenched from the arms of his mother in the birthing compound of the Primate Center in Oklahoma and spirited off to a brownstone in New York City, at the behest of project director Herbert Terrace. A hip Columbia prof with a following of grad student groupies, Herb picks former student Stephanie LaFarge to foster Nim in the household she shares with her new husband and their blended family of seven kids. Nobody in the family even knows how to sign, and Stephanie has too much of a “hippie mentality” to bother with notes or schedules, but a previous affair with Herb lands her the gig.
Surprised to find the infant chimp “dense and hard,” not soft, like a human baby, and unprepared for “the wild animal in him,” Stephanie nonetheless bonds with Nim. (She finds it “exciting” when he defies the other alpha males, like her husband and frequent visitor Herb.) When Herb starts sending in another nubile young research assistant, Laura, to baby-sit Nim, she’s appalled at the chaotic household; the women clash, and Herb has Nim removed to a new home in upstate New York, staffed by Laura and her team of educator-caregivers. (“I had strong feelings for Laura, but I don’t think that in any way impacted our science,” recalls the feckless Herb.)
The ’70s progress, and eager young (mostly female) researchers come, bond, and leave. Nim learns to adjust, and amasses an impressive signing vocabulary: Eat. Play. Hug. Me. Sorry. He’s smart enough to know how to take advantage of his caregivers to get what he wants, and as he grows toward his 5-foot, 150-pound adult size, his wants become increasingly unpredictable —probably even to himself. After a couple of nasty biting incidents, Herb (who by now only shows up for photo ops with the media) decides there’s “no point in going on, scientifically” and pulls the plug on the project. After five years in the human world, Nim is shipped back to a cage in Oklahoma.
And this is only a portion of Nim’s odyssey (which includes a mercifully brief interlude at a drug-testing research facility and a stint at Cleveland Amory’s rescue ranch for abused animals whose staffers have no idea what to do with a chimp). I confess, I was wary of seeing this movie, assuming it would all come to a bad end, but despite some truly heartbreaking separations and betrayals, Nim also inspires lifelong champion Bob Ingersoll, an Oklahoma chimp keeper who advocates on Nim’s behalf and sees to it that he has loving care and companionship in his later years.
As a portrait of human hubris, ego, and misguided ignorance, Project Nim is riveting. No one will need sign language to understand what this chimp is thinking.
★★★ (out of four) Watch film trailer >>>
A film by James Marsh. A Roadside Attractions release. Rated PG-13. 93 minutes.