Documentary Centered on a Chimp, but It's More About People
James Marsh made a terrific documentary with his Oscar-winning Man on Wire (2008), and he's done it again with Project Nim (2011). The new film chronicles the life and times of Nim Chimpsky (1973-2000), a chimpanzee taught to communicate with humans via American Sign Language, which is ordinarily used with the deaf. But Marsh doesn't give us another cute chimp movie; instead, we get an absorbing, thought-provoking examination of human actions and emotions.
People in Nim's Life
A key figure in the film is Professor Herbert Terrace of the Columbia University Psychology Department. Shortly after Nim is born at an Oklahoma primate center, Dr. Terrace takes the baby chimp away from his mother and relocates him to New York, where he becomes the subject of a study that goes on for four years.
Nim moves into a brownstone on Manhattan's Upper West Side with Stephanie LaFarge, her husband, and their blended family of seven children. Nim is treated like a human child, and at first Stephanie even breastfeeds him. He begins to grow and is occasionally allowed to drink beer and smoke pot.
Dr. Terrace takes Nim away from Stephanie and relocates him to a 28-acre estate in the Bronx, where the chimp lives in a mansion with university students who teach him sign language. Nim develops a vocabulary of what seems to be several dozen words, but he becomes aggressive and bites people, sometimes sending them to the hospital.
We see that Nim is unpredictable, going from playful and loving to destructive and dangerous without warning. Dr. Terrace declares the experiment over and relocates Nim back to the Oklahoma primate center, but this is problematic for the animal: he's been surrounded only by humans for four years and doesn't fit in well with the chimps at the center. Nim has gone from living in a mansion to living in a cage, but at least he does gain a new friend, an employee named Bob Ingersoll.
There remain more twists and turns in Nim's story, and Marsh manages to make the tale fascinating right up to film's end.
A Little Context for Nim's Story
Though not mentioned in the film, Nim Chimpsky was named after Noam Chomsky, the renowned MIT linguist. Chomsky and others hypothesized that language is unique to humans, and Herbert Terrace's experiment with Nim was intended to test this hypothesis. In the movie, there's a clip from a 1979 interview Terrace did on NBC television in which he states that Nim didn't acquire language — the chimp simply learned to do clever tricks to get rewards.
Also not mentioned in the film is that Terrace conceived and performed his experiment with the knowledge that other researchers had previously taught a female chimpanzee named Washoe to communicate with humans using American Sign Language. Interestingly enough, it turned out that Nim wasn't nearly as good as Washoe at communicating via signs.
In general, Project Nim doesn't give viewers much of an indication that Terrace's experiment was only a small part of a large body of research into animal language acquisition, which includes Koko the gorilla and Kanzi the bonobo. But by keeping a tight focus on Nim, Marsh was able to avoid getting bogged down in technical detail. What he wanted to explore in the film were the ethics of the way Nim was treated and the emotions of the people close to Nim.
If you want to learn something about the filmmaking that went into the documentary, watch the 34-minute "Making Nim." Here you meet Elizabeth Hess, author of the 2008 nonfiction book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human on which the movie was based. Director James Marsh tells how he put the movie together from interviews, archival footage and reenactments. You'll also meet Peter Elliott, who dons a monkey suit to impersonate a chimpanzee in the film. And there's composer Dickon Hinchliffe, formerly with the indie rock band Tindersticks.
The 11-minute "Bob's Journey" is about Bob Ingersoll, the lovable guy who befriended Nim at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma. Bob is seen representing the film at festivals and going to Monkey World, an ape rescue center in Dorset (UK).
If you liked Project Nim, don't fail to listen to the feature-length audio commentary by director James Marsh. He supplies a wealth of information, both about making the documentary and about the people in it. Marsh freely expresses opinions about what's going on in the film, and his remarks are quite helpful in coming to a better understanding of the movie's subject matter.
DVD Release Date: February 7, 2012
Feature Film Runtime: 1 hour 39 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Some Strong Language, Drug Content, Thematic Elements and Disturbing Images