Documentary filmmaker James Marsh won an Oscar for his nerve-wracking “Man on Wire” about the man, Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope stretched between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. Marsh changes his focus from human to ape in his study of the first chimpanzee to learn to speak to man in “Project Nim.”
This remarkable documentary appears to be about an experiment in animal behavior research in the 70s where the title character, a baby chimp named Nim Cimpsky, is placed in a human household to see if the little ape can learn to speak sing language. But, Marsh explores much more as he tells of the life of both Nim and his human handlers and the impact each had on the other.
One thing that “Project Nim” makes abundantly clear: the study was developed and run by amateurs. These dedicated individuals – and there are many who crossed paths with Nim – may have been experts in linguistics, speech and sign language but they were babes in the woods when it came to understanding chimpanzee behavior and little research was done. This is telling when the researchers are surprised to learn that a chimp is five to six times stronger than a human and a full grown Nim would weigh in at 150 pounds! Nim’s surrogate mom, Stephanie LaFarge, shows the battle scars from even when the chimp was very young.
The lack of understanding about chimpanzees resulted in Nim, from a species of animal that forms clans and is very social, being isolated from any normal simian interaction. The cruelty of this well-intentioned but naive action by the Columbia University researchers, led by Herbert S. Terrace, affected the research that set out to prove that apes can speak. Nim learned 125 signs but never learned what is called “double articulation” where the little ape is able to understand reversed words like “man bites dog” and “dog bites man.”
Nim lived for 27 years and spent all of his adult life in captive isolation when his strength and inherent wildness became dangerous. He was never allowed to join his fellow chimps. This is the real story in “Project Nim.” It is a heartbreaking tale of the naïveté of the people around Nim who knew little about the species. This sad, informative film is a high-quality documentary and another feather in the cap of James Marsh. I give it a B+.
In the early 1973, Stephanie LaFarge, a biological graduate student and married mother of three, was contacted by her Columbia University professor, Herb Terrace. He asked her if she'd like to take part in an experiment to raise a chimpanzee like a human child in order to see if the two species could communicate via sign language. LaFarge traveled to a primate research center in Oklahoma, where the baby ape who became known as Nim Chimpsky suffered his first trauma ordered by humans, being ripped from his equally traumatized mother, Charlotte, who had undergone this tragedy six times before. Nim was indulged for his first years, but when Terrace hired attractive lab assistant Laura-Ann Pettito, she recognized that there was no real science being applied to "Project Nim."
Director James Marsh, who looked back to the 1970's in wonder with his Oscar winning documentary "Man On Wire" in the format of a heist film, looks back at another famous curiosity of the time, Nim Chimpsky, with a more purely biographical format. This portrait of Nim probably tells us a lot more about human behavior than it does about the chimp at its center, also offering sociological perspectives over the changing times. But unlike his earlier film, this time Marsh leaves us with a lot of unanswered questions.
There are also implications, such as the suggestion that Terrace probably chose LaFarge because she was attractive and they had had a relationship. Now married to a 'rich hippy,' LaFarge had to learn the sign language she was to teach Nim, but what we really see is that Nim was treated more like an indulged pet. From the beginning, Nim was a manipulator and he did not like Stephanie's husband. When Pettito, another pretty girl who has a relationship with her boss, comes aboard, she's horrified that there are no journals, notes, measurements of Nim's progress. A 'who's mommy' tension develops between her and LaFarge, as Laura removes Nim for longer and longer periods of time to a lab environment. Eventually Nim is taken away from the LaFarge family entirely, moved to the then-owned-by-Columbia Delafield estate, a mansion set amidst beautiful grounds. Here Nim was housed with a series of teachers. He could sign 150 different words and use the toilet, loved holding cats and smoking pot, but he also was growing up and could inflict real harm. One teacher, Renee Falitz, literally had part of her face ripped off by the chimp, requiring 36 stitches. When Laura decided to leave because of personal issues with Terrace, Nim banged her head against the pavement. Herb decides to pull the plug on the experiment. Shattered, teachers Joyce Butler and Bill Tynan (also in a relationship!) accompany Terrace back to Oklahoma to return Nim. They are all shocked at the condition of the place. The chimp who's grown up spoiled and indulged and free is about to face isolation in a damp prison. Herb's concession - he left one of Nim's stuffed animals in his new cell.
Nim had a hard time socializing with other chimps and was expected to perform chores, but life was made a bit easier by a new human friend. Bob Ingersoll loved the Grateful Dead and Nim, engaged with the chimp's sign for 'play' outdoors and also indulged him in his pot smoking habit. This worked for a few years, then Bob got real worried when he saw Dr. James Mahoney, whom he considered evil incarnate, on the property. His worst fears were realized - the center had run out of funds and the chimps had been sold to LEMSIP, a medical research facility. Bob and some coworkers raised holy hell withe media, and stories were duly filed on Nim and his prior celebrity, but no one came to the rescue. Marsh never asks interviewees like LaFarge why she didn't do anything - she must have heard about it, right?
The film's point of view is largely Ingersoll centric from this time on, although Mahoney emerges as a guilt ridden researcher who eventually became an activist himself. He says he hated having to chose which chimps would be used in which projects - AIDS vaccines among them - and later he says that chimps have a capacity for forgiveness, and we believe him. There's some pretty awful footage from LEMSIP, but it's never clear if one of the chimps is Nim. Things take another strange turn, tough, when a lawyer with a unique strategy gets involved and the case pulls the attention of Texas animal rights activist with an equine rescue farm. He buys Nim. And still, the chimp has troubles.
Eventually Bob's persistence helps Nim to spend the last five of his twenty-six years in relative happiness, but this chimp's journey through one horrific situation after another makes one hang one's head in shame. And Nim's story is probably all hearts and flowers compared to others, untold. It's a fascinating tale, but there are too many gaps in its telling. Nim frequently escapes his Texas pen and wrecks havoc, even killing a dog, but we never hear how, or why it happened so often once it was known he could do it. Stephanie comes to visit after many, many years and is advised not to go into Nim's pen when it is clear her presence has been recognized, but has agitated the chimp. Why didn't anyone stop her? And whatever happened to her husband, who is not present and not mentioned? Where were the voices of Nim's Columbia project members when he was sold into medical research? (Marsh does show us that Herb visited Oklahoma to see Nim, but it smacks of a photo op - he never saw the chimp again after that.) The Professor's conclusion that his project hadn't proved that chimps and humans could communicate, merely that Nim was a talented beggar, isn't challenged by any other experts.
Even with all these gaps, though, Marsh is clearly two for two. Not only have both of his documentaries had fascinating subject matter, but he's approached them from original angles - the biography of a man told as a heist, the tale of a chimp given the biography treatment.
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