In 1973 Columbia University behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace had an idea. What if a chimpanzee baby was taken from its birth mother and raised as a human child, in a human household? This idea would become a reality when he made arrangements with a Primate Center to take one of their newborn chimpanzees just days after birth. The chimps new “mother” would be a former student of his, Stephanie Lafarge; a woman who already had children of her own and was living an above average middle class life with her new husband and his children in New York City. The LeFarge household was far from common, it had the air of a hippie commune, and Stephanie not the greatest of disciplinarians. When the chimp, whom they names Nim arrived playtime began. The science of the experiment, to see if by teaching a chimpanzee sign language from birth and having him live as a human child could produce the development of language, and grammatical sentences, was all but lost on the Lefarge’s. At one moment in the documentary you just may believe Stephanie and her less than conservative ways would be open to letting Nim explore his sexuality with her; the mother-child bond exceeding past the appropriate by any standards.
For Nim, living with the Lefarge’s was a great time. He had full run of the house, lots of people and toys to play with, and an overabundance of love. The complication of course came in the form of discipline, and the science began to suffer because Stephanie was not raising Nim as a human child would be raised but letting him be free to explore his “animal side”. The detrimental effect it would have on the experiment, and did have, is explored vaguely in the documentary Project Nim. No one directly wants to blame anyone for why Nim never was quite human, or perhaps it is the reality that an animal cannot be caged, changed, and made to be something else. The nature vs. nurture debate floats in one’s mind constantly as the many people who come in and out of Nim’s life have different approaches on how to treat him. Nim is taken from the LeFarge’s and sent to a beautiful home upstate that is owned by Columbia University and Terrace creates a home for him with several teacher’s to continue the experiment of language development. To be clear though, Terrace has little contact with Nim throughout the years, except for media appearances.
Nim’s life will not end in this home, and the rest of the story is shocking to watch. One may call it a documentary that belongs in the horror genre as it narrates just what fate became of Nim, and the struggles he would face in his life for being nearly abandoned, and branded different. Because Nim does learn to sign, he is able to communicate with humans, and express his wishes when he wants something. Nim’s progress is remarkable, but he is not treated as remarkable as he grows older and the animal instinct inside of him grows. It is this point that will anger you while watching the movie. The documentary paints a picture of an animal with violent tendencies that cannot be controlled while all of the information leading up to the point would point elsewhere, unless provoked (as even a human is capable). There are interviews with some of his teacher’s that point in the direction of non-violence, but just enough of the other side to call it into question. There is also a great deal of information left out of the film. Endless questions are raised as the story unfolds, through interviews with the people who worked with and raised Nim, as well as actual archive footage of the time spent with Nim in “school” and at play. The audience sees one side of the story as it is presented before them in footage but the people who were there tell a story plagued with holes, and suspicion.
When Terrace is asked questions as to the treatment of Nim, or what happened to the experiment, he plays the fool. His despicable demeanor, and all around creepy tone of voice that makes you shiver, gives him little credibility. You know he remembers, and you know he had bigger motivations that what he is saying to the documentarian then he wants revealed or let on. It is his complete lack of responsibility for the way his actions influenced the life of an animal that makes him deplorable. There is a villain in this story, and that villain is Herbert Terrace.
Project Nim is not a film about a happy chimpanzee who came to live with humans. It is more a commentary on the flaws of behavioral science, the flaws of mankind, and above all the realization that it is possible for a primate species to evolve in unimaginable ways–if only humans were a strong enough species to allow the flourishing to occur without dire consequences.
James Marsh follows up on his award-winning Man on Wire with this mesmerizing and disturbing look at a scientific experiment gone awry. Could an animal be taught to communicate with humans using sign language?
In the 1970s, a chimp named Nim was taken from his parents to be raised by a family of well-off counter-cultural New Yorkers. This was just the first stop in a long and increasingly twisted journey, which, in Marsh’s expert hands, reveals far more about human desire, cruelty and ambition than chimpanzee learning abilities. Though the title character is lovable and there is laughter, this is no children’s story; the pain is too real.
(England, 2011, 93 mins)
Directed By: James Marsh
Executive Producers: John Battsek, Andrew Ruhemann, Nick Fraser, Hugo Grumbar, Jamie Laurenson
Producer: Simon Chinn
Cinematographer: Michael Simmonds
Editor: Jinx Godfrey
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe