Project Nim

Chimps and apes seem to be big in the popular culture air these days. Project Nim is a documentary biography of a chimp who was famous in scientific circles in the 1970’s. Tomorrow I’ll be seeing the feature film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. which is the origin story for Planet of the Apes, the classic sci-fi cautionary tale and its sequels. (See my review of the film on this website.) Sara Gruen’s (Water for Elephants) latest novel is Ape House, inspired by her experiences communicating with bonobo apes at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa.

Project Nim is not as giddy as James Marsh’s previous edge-of-your-seat documentary on a skyscraper tightrope walker, Man on Wire, which won an Oscar as Best Documentary in 2009. But it has a similar compelling nature, proven masterful documentary film techniques, and Marsh’s same uncanny ability to guide his story, but let the audience make up their own minds about its meaning. It’s an irresistible piece of filmmaking. Even though it’s only August, I am sure it will be on my year’s 10 Best Movies list.

The 1970s was a time when the 60s still held sway. Everyone who was hip smoked pot, and taking responsibility for your actions was rare because everyone wanted to “be free” and not hold any judgments against one another. A very immature era.

Renowned MIT linguist Noam Chomsky claimed that only human beings could formulate language. Early experiments with chimps seemed to prove, to a small handful of believers, that he was wrong, that our close cousins the chimps could learn sign language to communicate with us. The theories of evolution and the essential question of what it means to be human were central to the chimp-human experiments of the day.

Herbert Terrace, an arrogant, charismatic psychology professor at Columbia University, was determined to make a name for himself by proving the famed linguist was wrong. He wanted to raise a chimp as a human child and teach it words from the sign language of the deaf, to show that chimps could formulate language, even though their vocal cords didn’t have the capacity for verbal language. Terrace was too focused on his ambitions to seek out what Jane Goodall was learning about chimps in Africa. (I met Ms. Goodall once and never forgot the experience. She is the most gentle, yet powerful person I ever met. She makes Terrace look like an obnoxious punk kid.) And of course Terrace was too preoccupied with his image to actually raise a chimp himself.

Terrace probably didn’t even have a pet dog or cat — if he had, he might have known that animals already know how to communicate with humans. It’s the humans who are too dense to learn how to listen. If he had had a pet, he might not have started the experiment with a chimp and caused such grief to an innocent animal and the sometimes misguided human beings who worked with him.

Terrace thought his grad student, and former lover, Stephanie LaFarge, now a mother of three human kids and step-mother to another four with her poet new husband, make an ideal surrogate mother for a chimpanzee. At the Primate Institute in Oklahoma, from a tranquilized mother who had already had six other babies stolen from her, Terrace took a 5-day-old boy and put him in Stephanie’s eager waiting arms. To mock Dr.Chomsky, they named the child Nim Chimpsky and called him Nim.

Stephanie LaFarge took the chimp home and treated him like her other children. She even breast fed (!) the baby. With amazing self-absorption, Stephanie didn’t ask her new husband if he minded sharing his large lovely home with a chimp. Nim’s human siblings loved him–they laughed in glee as he tore up the house and hung from light fixtures and did whatever he wanted to do when he wanted to do it. But Nim, who wanted Stephanie all to himself (any Oedipal complex studies here?), hated Stephanie’s husband and the two males never learned to co-exist.

A few years go by. Nim is a playful maniac all the time–he even smokes pot and drinks beer while he continues to run riot in the house. Ms. LaFarge, supposedly trained by a brilliant scientist, doesn’t take any notes, doesn’t keep a journal of her activities and doesn’t teach Nim language.

Terrace sends in a new grad student, a pretty 18-year old, Laura-Ann Pettito, who is determined to bring scientific order into the domestic chaos. She insists on discipline, note-taking and lessons for Nim. Needless to say Mom and the interloper don’t hit it off and eventually Terrace takes Nim away from LaFarge. He installs the animal–and a team of new mostly female research assistants–in a mansion paid for by the university. There Laura-Ann can teach Nim sign language all day long and there’s plenty of room for other humans to visit all the time. Alas, Laura-Ann finally succumbs to Terrace’s professor charm, they sleep together, she gets emotional, and walks out.

Separated first from his surrogate mother and now his constant companion, Nim tries to relate to his other new human companions. But, as always happens with little boys, he grows up. He becomes so big that when he gets angry, which happens more often–remember he is a teenager by this time–he gets violent. He causes serious, sometimes life-threatening injuries by biting people. He never had his eye teeth removed and he could tear into flesh with a vengeance. One time he attacked one of his favorite teachers and ripped part of her face off. After his attacks, Nim always anxiously signed and re-signed the word for “sorry,” but he was growing more dangerous every day.

Convinced that Nim was not really learning language, just manipulating humans to give him what he wanted (remember this guy never even had a Labrador Retriever to see how manipulative animals can be), Terrace suddenly stopped the experiment. Nim who had rolled around on grassy hills with his human companions, wore T-shirts and cut-off jeans, got hugs whenever he demanded them, learned to use the potty when he had to get “dirty,” ate yogurt and smoked joints and had never seen another chimpanzee–was suddenly flown back to the primate center in Oklahoma and put in a cage.

Poor Nim. Who would feed him yogurt? Who would give him hugs? Needless to say Nim went into culture shock. He was not happy–who would be? At this point, your heart is breaking for the big mischievous kid. But you assure yourself it couldn’t get any worse. He was a famous chimp. Surely someone was going to come around and rescue him, right? Surely Nim’s story was going to be just like a happy news story about a lost puppy who finds a wonderful new family after his home is swept away in a flood? Don’t get your hopes up. There’s a reason that several other film critics have referred to Nim’s story as Dickensian.

Also by this time in the film, director James Marsh has shown plenty of archival footage so we can see what happened in the 1970s. And intercut those 30+-year images with new footage shot recently with those same people. Here’s where the film gets really interesting.

Why people allow themselves to be interviewed by brilliant documentary filmmakers is totally beyond me. Once you agree to an interview, the camera does its thing. It seduces you into telling the truth and revealing who you really are. If you’re a brave, compassionate soul, that’s what will come across. If you’re into making excuses and you’re real low on the ethics thermometer, that will become apparent within seconds.

Today Dr. Terrace is even more arrogant and repulsive than ever. Stephanie LaFarge, the surrogate mom, still seems like a flipped out hippie, it’s just now she has a botoxed forehead that leaves her eyebrows motionless. Those humans who were kind and thoughtful as young people, like Nim’s pal Bob Ingersoll, stayed that way as they grew older. The ones who were jerks when they were young grew more monstrous. It’s an incredible time lapse the film lays out–the people speak for themselves. All the director did was turn on the camera and edit their responses later. How some of these people can show their faces in public again, much less retain tenure, is a mystery I can’t even begin to want to fathom.

What happened to Nim and the humans he knew is related in the rest of the film, which I’ll leave you to discover on your own. Let me just say that every single moment of this film is mesmerizing, not just because of James Marsh’s film artistry, but because of the ethical, emotional and spiritual questions it raises.

I’m not saying Project Nim is a comfortable experience– I am saying that it’s so moving that you’ll never look at a fellow living creature again–of any species–in the same way. See it right away because it’s a documentary and thus won’t stay in the theatre long. And in the meantime, start a conversation with your pet and really listen to him or her.

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