Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jul 18, 2011 5:56 pm 
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Border crossings

Project Nim is a 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. Marsh is more interested in the emotional and psychological aspects of the project using "Nim Chimsky" (the chimpanzee protagonist's full name) than its 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. This is a fascinating, sometimes funny, and more often disturbing film. But its special focus leads to a certain lack of context where the science is concerned.

To begin with we have to go elsewhere to learn that "Nim Chimsky" is a play on the name of leading linguistic theorist Noam Chomsky -- and for a reason. Chomsky held that only humans use syntactic language, and the ostensible aim of Project Nim was to prove Chomsky wrong. Or was it to prove him right? The film never mentions Chomsky, or makes this clear. What we learn is that Nim was born at a primate center in Oklahoma, taken away from his mother at two months, transported to New York, and turned over to Stephanie LaFarge, her "rich hippie" poet husband and their combined children, to be raised like a human child at a brownstone on the Upper West Side. A cute but hard-muscled tyke, Nim was raised like a member of the family. LaFarge hadn't consulted with her husband or the children. She and one of her daughters simply took it on. The "Project" was headed by Herbert Terrace, a professor at Columbia University, whom we see and hear from both then and now. The film emphasizes that while Terrace was regularly photographed with Nim he was with him only sporadically and didn't do the work.

Another omission of the film is Project Washoe, an earlier, similar and much publicized study in which a chimp was raised like a human child and taught sign language -- possibly with more success than with Nim, though the outcome of these studies is somewhat in dispute. Nim, like Washoe, was taught American Sign Language because it had been found that chimpanzees cannot imitate the sounds of human speech. How much Nim also learned to respond to voice communication as well as to make and understand signs for food, play, potty, etc. isn't specified. According to Herb Terrace, Nim never used the alleged 125 signs he was taught "syntactically," in real sentences and used them strictly to ask for things. How about "happy" or "sad"? Not much about that, either. But the humans who worked with Nim certainly felt these emotions when the separations and cruelty to Nim came. When they talk about all that, their testimony is often teary.

Marsh relies on interviews with Terrace and a number of people who raised, taught, and befriended Nim, augmented by videotapes of Nim and his caretakers, mostly women, at least during the language project -- along with reenactments. (The latter smooth the transitions, but can blur another kind of boundary, between the known and the imagined.) Later, some men came into the picture. The way the largely female caretakers interacted with Nim may have been careless and unwise, but, as one says "It was the Seventies." Terrace, with his large mustache and comb-over and sometimes self-serving explanations, evidently was a womanizer: his interactions with the women in the project were not appropriate either. 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.

Nim had his way too, though it was not much to his ultimate benefit. 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 decided that the environment at the West Side house was too undisciplined and had Nim moved to a vacant mansion formerly occupied by the president of the university. Laura-Ann Petitto was Nim's chief teacher and surrogate mother there, and other graduate students also participated. Here the training may have been more controlled, but the environment, though posh, may have been lonelier for Nim and as he grew bigger he grew more dangerous for humans to interact with. All this time and for the rest of his life, Nim was an animal in captivity.

While not outright hostile, the caretakers appear today to be resentful toward Herb Terrace, an absentee supervisor who ended Project Nim on his own initiative without taking their vote after one of Nim's young woman companions and teachers was severely bitten in the face. This was far from the first time. It may be that Washoe, who was a female chimp raised from birth, had a gentler personality. Being a male ripped from his mother at two months, Nim may from the start have been an angrier and more violent chimp than the project participants realized. However, Marsh doesn't compare Nim's case with other projects or other chimps. A key factor was that these people had no experience with chimps or knowledge of their ways.

When Terrace dumped Nim and declared the project a failure he was drugged and taken back to Oklahoma in a small chartered plane -- to live with other chimps (he'd never seen any), in a cage. The transition was grim. But here again Nim was 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 says, Nim got shunted around a "staggering" number of times and his sad foster-child-reject story takes on "Dickensian" proportions. Fortunately Nim's final years seem to have been not too bad, but his life is a story of increasing confinement.

In this documentary the English-born Marsh has gone back to the Seventies and the overstepping of boundaries of those days. But while Man on Wire with its French rebel tight rope walker provides an experience that's both suspenseful and thrilling, Project Nim is a downer of a story that leaves one feeling dispirited -- the more so because of the lack of scientific results or intellectual context (weaknesses perhaps of the project itself). Nonetheless Project Nim is a thorough investigation with a wealth of material and deeply revealing interviews. It is likely to be one of the year's best and most memorable documentaries. Watch it, if you can. along with that great French documentarian Nicolas Philibert's Nénette (released in the US late last year) a study of a 40-year-old female orangutan in the zoo at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Both are profound studies of how far short humans have still tended to fall in understanding their closest relatives.

Project Nim debuted at Sundance in January 2011 and was released July 8, 2011 in the US, August 12 in the UK.

[On NPR July 20, 2011, Terry Gross presented a revealing series of interviews about the film, "'Project Nim': A Chimp's Very Human, Very Sad Life."]


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