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A story of a remarkable ape and human folly
Red-Barracuda13 August 2011
This story is about a project in the 1970's that was intended to discover if it was possible to bring up a chimpanzee like a human being. The chimp, Nim, lived in a house, wore clothes and developed a sign language that could identify many things. It's a story that is simultaneously fascinating and terribly sad. Snatched from his mother just after birth he was taken under the wing of a family of rich hippies who had no actual knowledge of primate behaviour. From this early stage it is evident that the chimp displays very specific primate behaviour where he acts aggressively and belligerently to the father figure, in a way that reflects chimp behaviour in the wild where the males need to assert domination over other males from an early stage. Nim proves too much for these misguided people to deal with and from here he is passed via a number of primate specialists until he horrifically winds up in an animal testing centre, and finally in a ranch for mistreated animals, although even here Nim lived for a period in complete isolation but thankfully ended up with mates in his final years.

The very idea of a chimp being brought up in human society is a fascinating one. But it quickly becomes apparent that this experiment is doomed to failure. There is a very good reason that you do not see people keep chimpanzees as pets – they can be extremely aggressive and powerful animals. On numerous occasions carers were bitten and maimed. One woman had a hole ripped in the side of her face while another had her head repeatedly beaten off the pavement by the ape. But the over-riding feeling engendered by the documentary is one of sadness. This poor creature is let down by those who took him from his mother and decided to rear him as a human. It seems to me quite outrageous that an animal taught to communicate with people and live in a house should ever have been sent to an animal experiment centre. The blame must surely be primarily put on Professor Herbert Terrace whose project it was. Once Nim was sent to a chimp reserve he seemingly lost interest and made absolutely no attempt to save him from what could have quite easily have been an awful fate. So thank heavens for Bob Ingersoll the man who looked after Nim in the reserve and never gave up on him. Bob ultimately saved him through perseverance and considerable effort. He emerges as the human hero of the film, although the other carers from New York such as Laura and the young couple who followed her also cared deeply for the animal too, the latter two still seemed genuinely pained by how Nim was ultimately treated.

The essential message of the film is that you should not try to transport a wild animal into human society and not expect repercussions. Some of the people in the film are just guilty of naivety, dangerous as it was. As much as a story about a remarkable primate, it's a story about human stupidity, human callousness and – thanks to Bob Ingersoll – human kindness. It's overall a remarkable documentary.
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Sad for the Chimp, Angry at the Prof
David Ferguson25 July 2011
Greetings again from the darkness. It is rare that we find a movie so unsettling to watch, yet admire the expertise with which it is made. Such is the case with award-winning documentarian James Marsh and his presentation of Project Nim. This is the story of Nim Chimpsky, the chimp from the 1970's who was taught sign-language and raised by humans.

The chimp's name is taken from Noam Chomsky, the famous MIT linguist. Unfortunately, the linguistic side of this story actually is quite minor compared to what really occurred. Columbia professor Herbert Terrace wanted to conduct an experiment on a baby chimp to see if it could be raised like a human baby and learn to communicate with people. He started the project by snatching the baby from its mother at two weeks of age, and then plopping it right into a large, free-spirited family with no scientific or primate-training background. Heck, no one in the family even knows sign language! The film shows how quickly Nim adapts to the pampered lifestyle and is even breast-fed by Stephanie, the mother. Nim is also exposed to smoking pot, drinking alcohol and even has limited success being potty trained. All of this is explained away with "it was the seventies". I was already bouncing between sadness and anger.

Admittedly, I am no scientist. I do know that a true science experiment or project would involve specific records and at least some type of plan ... not to mention the recording of actions, tests and progress. Instead, Professor Terrace shows up periodically for some photo ops and a hug from Nim. Poof! He is gone again. While this is never really explained in the film, one can only assume he was benefiting nicely from a huge grant, not to mention "close" relationships with a couple of his assistants. The other thing left unexplained was how Nim's mother had other babies taken from her in a similar manner. We get no detail on those "experiments".

As Nim gets older, guess what ... he gets bigger and stronger. He is difficult to control and even lashes out periodically at his caregivers, once quite violently. He is bounced from home to home and person to person. He does adapt, but he is just too strong and unpredictable to be part of human society. Finally, he is sold off to an animal rescue farm. That's just great, except initially there are no other chimps. Not a good thing for a social primate.

The whole thing is just painful to watch. I couldn't help but feel sympathy for the chimp and anger at the people ... especially Professor Terrace. His selfish, ill-conceived project negatively impacted the life of a chimp and the safety and well-being of many good-hearted people along the way.

While there was proof that Nim learned approximately 125 signs, the question remains ... did he really understand these words and phrases? Did he instead learn behavior that led to his reward? One of Nim's later day caregivers (Bob Ingersoll) visited him often at the rescue farm until at the age of 26, Nim passed away. The average lifespan of a chimp in the wild is about 45 years. So, it would appear neither the chimp or the people really benefited from Project Nim. It is, however, a well made documentary.
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An engaging and powerful film.
huwdj28 March 2013
This is the true story of what happened when a baby chimp, Nim, it taken from his mother and placed with a human family. He is taught sign language by a series of carers before becoming too big and dangerous around the age of 5 at which time he is returned to the ranch he was taken from.

There is a huge amount going on in this documentary as the carers over the years are interviewed with footage from the time. What emerges will probably anger and sadden most viewers. Though I felt that Nim's carers genuinely bonded with him what emerges is a largely a tale of careless cruelty.

Equally interesting and perhaps the root cause of what happens later is the relationships between the humans. Particularly between the project leader Professor Herbert Terrance and the numerous attractive research assistants. There are several references to the power he held and exercised. Overall it has to be said he does not emerge from this film as either likable or particularly competent.

The various approaches of the teachers and carers differ so widely and even though there is much happy footage you have to wonder at the effect this had on Nim. I was left with the feeling that he eventually responded best to the people who recognised him as a chimp but still treated him as a companion within the limits this imposed.

This is a powerful film that should be shown as widely as possible and would probably be good thing to included in school curricular.
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Professor's loins, ego , and outated Skinnarian outllook prove the undoing of Nim
Susan2 April 2012
Warning: Spoilers
To me, as a linguist, the ill-conceived professional designs of Columbia University professor Herbert Terrace kept getting more and more diabolical as the film progressed...and no one stopped him!

As a humanist, I was appalled at Professor Terrace's misguided views of mankind; his on-going affairs with his female students; and his continuous disavowals of any responsibility of any part of anything at all ...except for publicity, of course.

And, as a resident of NYC, I am astonished at the fact that he still teaches his outmoded doctrine of animal-behavioral studies ideas (based on the long-refuted BF Skinner) at Columbia University--(and, BTW, is rated by his students in the same manner as I am writing about him here).

My helplessness to do anything about Nim has been echoed by other reviewers–so I won't cry any more literary tears for that poor animal--except to thank Bob Ingersoll for his dedication and caring spirit.

Anyone who has read Kune knows that scholars ought not to keep beating one scientific approach for their whole lives (e.g. Skinner), but to see their discipline through as many approaches as will move that discipline along. Alas, Terrance appears to be the worst kind of professor, who viewed his discipline though only one poor lens, and did so with no one monitoring him.

And, after viewing this film, I'm even more glad now that I chose to get my Linguistics Ph.D. at NYU and not Columbia, so many years ago.)

The film itself was nearly perfect. It operated with less fuss than most and just tried to allow the story to shine though.
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Compare to Rise of the Planet of the Apes
sfdphd15 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I saw Project Nim right after seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the similarities are startling. Nim and Caesar are both taken from their mothers at birth, raised in human families until they get to be too aggressive, and then put into primate shelters and medical research facilities. The difference is that Caesar leads an uprising of the apes and poor Nim is left in a cage until he dies.

Most of the humans in both films come off as abusive and/or ignorant of what they have done to the chimps. One or two in each film tries to do the right thing but is thwarted by the other humans. As a psychologist, I was personally appalled by the behavior of the psychologists in the film. They should have known better than to remove an infant from its mother and try to raise it within the family of another species. That's insane! Colleagues at the university should have rejected any application for funding of such research. The license of the psychologist in the film should be revoked. He not only traumatized Nim for his own purposes but also hired incompetent and inexperienced assistants to whom he was sexually attracted. It was the 1970's but that is no excuse.

I believe that there actually was some interesting research data about the chimp's use of language that the psychologist dismisses. So in my eyes, he fails on an intellectually professional level as well as an ethical one.

Both films are sad commentaries on the human race and the chimps seem like the better species. Would be an interesting double bill to have the fantasy feature film and the documentary shown together.
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Fascinating but sad
robertsmith-132-30225713 August 2011
This is a very good and engaging film. I will not reiterate plot as this is available in the other fine reviews, but I have to say I found the documentary both heartening and deeply sad in equal measures.

Firstly, I do agree with the other reviewers comments on futility, I do not, however, agree entirely with Professor Terrace's view that the project was a failure, though conversely I do think the project failed Nim. To expand on this I would say that the conclusion of Terrace's failure seemed to fit a classic narrow set of parameters by which you compare and judge the outcome solely on an initial and highly specific expectation of what you will achieve. To this end perhaps it failed Professor Terrace's criteria.

I think however opportunities were certainly lost. Nim seemed to interact in so many subtle and fascinating ways during the process of his teaching, and he seemed to teach a great deal to all of the assistants who gave him their care. There seemed to be so little structure from the start with regards to what was to be taught and observed and in which direction the project should be going.

The only constant seemed to be the teaching of signing, at which Nim excelled! From what I could see, regardless of whether he learnt the actions to manipulate his handlers or not, he still learnt the signs. Since it was known that the chimp could not form human speech, how was it to communicate what it had learnt and why it was using the language in this way? I found this point frustrating and dubious and an example of one person with their eye so "firmly on the prize", that they miss the importance of the process.

Importantly, everybody who was involved across the duration of the project was given a chance to clearly state the turn of events. Perspectives on this varied widely, as you would expect, as everybody brought a different set of expectations and sensibilities, but it was a mature approach which I think led to the films balanced handling of Nim's story.

All in all I found it a fascinating cautionary tale. Luckily the balance of academic ego versus humanity that twists through this story left me with hope that indeed something had been learnt from the unique life of this Chimpanzee.
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A project to produce a linguistically capable chimp instead produces an ironic view of humanity
icecubeburn17 January 2012
OK, so the idea going in to this film is we take a a baby chimp and test the nature versus nurture theory. Trying to see if we can "correct" their deficiency in human communication, if you will...

What instead results is indeed a spectacle to witness. Nim is indeed a remarkable chimp who was sadly the victim of human inexperience with supplying the type of care he needed and deserved. What we learn is not what a chimpanzee is lacking, but what humanity is.

I suggest watching the film with a mind towards what Nim himself must be thinking as you see his life unfold. Nim lives a chimpanzee's analog to a human life, but for a chimp, it is utterly horrifying to watch. But like any life, there are more lighthearted moments as well, such as Nim and his friend Bob with their "Stone." "Smoke." "Now." time together, which actually seemed to be Nim's best time with any humans.

All in all, this documentary of Nim's life serves as a reminder that mother nature made chimpanzees and humans their own devices for communicating and living separately. The two cannot co-exist peacefully within one habitat due to the gap in strength and cognitive intelligence. However this one chimp, Nim, came remarkably close to peaceful co-habitation and viable communication with humans and his cost for such was great.
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Must see - for the sake of humanity
p-stepien21 May 2013
A great and detailed recollection of the life of Nim Chimpsky, the famed chimpanzee, who was brought up amongst humans and taught sign language in order to assess the cognitive abilities of primates as well as to research into the evolution of man. Shown through the use of talking heads, vast archive footage and some very well made reenactments, "Project Nim" breathes life into the Nim in ways, which would be impossible to achieve through a normal narrative feature.

Ripped from his biological mother just weeks after birth (in the first tear-jerking scene, where the chimpanzee attempts to protect her infant from the inevitable separation), Nim initiates his life as a 'project'. The movie title rightly classifies him as such, as the animal's life is severely stigmatised by the fact, that almost no-one in his tragic life treated him as anything other than a objectified research tool, instead of what he really was: a complex, multi-layered animal with warmth, feelings and - also - layers of anger and resentment. Nim functions within the confines of human cruelty and lack of empathy, first stolen from his true mother, than abruptly taken away from his surrogate mother (when the 'experiment' is deemed to be going awry). This detachment from a loving environment brings him into hasty changes in relations between him and his human 'teachers' or caretakers. The project continues in a vast country villa, where Nim is cared for inasmuch as he serves his purpose as a subject of research: long hours spent in closed surroundings while being taught sign language and 'proper behaviour'.

When Nim's aggressive behaviours increase the project is terminated, thus again throwing Nim into a new home, this time with the company of chimpanzees and - thankfully - the only human being who can truly be called his friend: Bob Ingersoll. Despite various turns for the worse in Nim's life, Bob was the only human being never to leave him, saving him from a research facility and having his immense role in offering Nim the best possible conditions for living out the rest of his tragic life.

"Project Nim" attempts to detach itself from overly creating the narrative, instead letting the people involved in the experiment speak for themselves. And they do so with devastating effect - one by one presenting themselves in extremely negative light, especially prof. Herbert Terrace coming off as a terrible research-crazed individual lacking empathy to understand the extent of harm he caused on Nim. Despite the project's intention to bring up Nim as a human being, the chimpanzee is ripped away from two mothers, but never once is his aggressive behaviour attributed to his dysfunctional upbringing - with no mother, no caring family and a growing sense of abandonment. Non-surprisingly Bob Ingersoll, the only person to remain true towards Nim, was the sole interviewee never to complain about Nim's 'animal' side. Much as a small child who bashes out in mindless anger, there is always a reason behind such actions. However no-one from the research crew even thought about taking this into account, instead blaming it on the 'brute animal' hidden inside Nim.

Director James Marsh presents a heart-wrenching and damning insight into the concept of humanity, questioning whether the meaning of the words 'humane' and 'inhumane' are wrongly attributed and a reversal seems to be in order. Given the majority of people involved in Nim's life were destructive, inconsiderate and with the loyalty of a fly, it would seem more suited that Nim's only true friend Bob Ingersoll be called inhumane - the only person who did not act like a typical human being. Up yours humanity!

Required viewing for the betterment of our human nature. And hopefully for the betterment of the fate of animals world-wide. Should be required viewing in every school everywhere.
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An experiment in futility
insomnia2 August 2011
Imagine this. A baby is taken from her mother without her consent. The baby is reared in a Manhattan upper class household environment for five years, and then is taken away to live with someone else. Much later on, the baby, now a young man, is returned to a home for other orphaned children.

This is roughly the sequence of events that befell a chimpanzee named NIM, and is the subject of a haunting and disturbing documentary by James Marsh, who made "Man On Wire."

Behavioural scientist Herbert Terrace at Columbia University in New York, believed that as 98.7% of the DNA in humans and chimpanzees is identical, he wanted to conduct an experiment by having a chimp raised in a human family and taught to communicate using American Sign Language. And thereby disprove the foremost authority on linguistics, Noam Chomsky, whose theory was that only humans have language. Herbert Terrace called his experiment "Project NIM."

At three or so months old, a chimp is like a small puppy – frisky, playful, and much, much more destructive. Fully grown, a male chimp can grow up to 1.7 metres and weigh up to 70 kilos. They are very, very strong, and have a high level of aggression. In one scene, NIM becomes frightened and angry, and it took four strong men to subdue him.

The project was conducted in the early seventies, not long after the phenomenon of Woodstock and at the tail end of the Hippie Movement. The first family, who took on the responsibility to raise NIM, were totally unprepared for the impact NIM would have on their lives. To say they were overwhelmed is an under-statement. Eventually, it got all too much for them, and NIM was transferred to a huge house set in large grounds outside New York, that Herbert Terrace thought might be a more suitable location to conduct his experiment.

Eventually, even after NIM showed he could 'understand' sign language, Herbert Terrace finally admitted defeat. "Project NIM" was not the success he had hoped for, and the project is abandoned.

"Project NIM" was not so much about a how intelligent chimps are, but how conceited we are to think that we can mould a chimp into acting and communicating like we do.
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fascinating insightful
SnoopyStyle23 September 2013
This James Marsh (Man on Wire) documentary examines the life of Nim Chimpsky who was raised in 70s as an experiment to show chimps can think like man. They taught him to sign, and raised him as a child with a human family. At first, it's hailed as a success. But he soon became too powerful to handle and more and more he is institutionalized. The professor finally ends the experiment sending Nim to a medical research facility. The film interviews all those people who interacted with Nim.

Sure it has a fascinating subject in the chimp Nim, but the more fascinating subjects are the humans who inhabit his life. From the professor who never saw Nim as any more than a subject. To the family who yearn to reconnect with him. And finally people who would rescue him from isolation. The camera really turns away from the animal back to all of us as a species.
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Thanks for nothing.
The_Film_Cricket4 April 2014
Warning: Spoilers
Where does a chimpanzee fit in the scheme of nature in relation to human beings? If you'll pardon me a crude analogy: If the evolutionary chain were a movie theater and humans occupy the front row, primates might place two rows behind us. We are a tiny fraction away from having the same DNA and when we look at them we can see that they are, basically, a savage version of what we use to be. Yet, in their eyes you can see that their thinking patterns must match ours in some fashion. What that fashion is exactly remains one of the great unsolved mysteries. What can they learn? Can they learn the way humans can? Are they communicating on our scale? Can they be taught from a young age and adapt just like a human child? These questions were the focal point of a now-legendary experiment begun in 1973 and headed by a Columbia psychology professor named Herbert Terrace to see if an infant Chimpanzee could be raised in a normal human household and could be taught to communicate. The chimp was forcibly taken from his mother mere days after birth and given the name Nim Chimpsky (we learn the heartbreaking fact that this was the sixth child that this particular mother has had taken away and we see her in silhouette mourning the loss). Nim first lived in a brownstone in Manhatten with a married couple and their children. He wore clothes, he played with the pets; his human mother let him drink beer and smoke pot (this was the early 70s). She even breast-fed him. Most importantly, he was taught functional amounts of sign language. Nim's education in sign language was at the core of the project, even though one of the family members curiously points out that no one in the family was actually fluent in sign language to begin with.

The documentary Project Nim follows the progress of that experiment in reenactments and still photographs, but mostly through eyewitness testimony from the researchers who spent time working with Nim during the project. Some of the footage that we see might fit right in on a television sitcom or one of those shows from the 60s like "Daktari" or "Gentle Ben". We see little Nim rolling around on the floor playing with the kids, the dog and then the cat. It is all very cute, but one can't watch the footage and not be concerned. Nim, after all, an animal with violent tendencies.

Nim, through his training, seems perfectly happy, which is ironic when you compare him with some of the humans that are caring for him. Many of whom seem to have deep personality flaws. Dr. Terrace seems to evoke the quality of an father who raises a child from a distance, and the research assistants, Stephanie and Laura-Ann Petitto seem willing to forgive some of Nim's more aggressive tendencies and outbursts as he approaches maturity.

What becomes abundantly clear as Nim grows is something that Terrace doesn't seem to have considered: Chimps are cute and cuddly as babies, but as adults they are unmanageable. They don't know their own strength which is five times that of a human. We see talking-head interviews with many of the key participants in the experiment who show us scars from having been attacked and bitten by Nim during their time with him. One, in particular, was the most loving of all of Nim's parents and received a nasty bite through her cheek, not during a moment of violence but seemingly out of the clear blue sky.

I don't know if it was the intention of James Marsh, the director, but humankind isn't presented well at all in this movie. Nim is only a product of his circumstances - pulled away from his mother to spend the first half of his life in the spotlight, but when that spotlight is gone, what then? He's like a flavor-of-the-month celebrity who's light faded and everyone moved on to something else. So, knowing what we know about primate behavior, we kind of sense where the movie is going. Nim, through his work with the researchers eventually learned some 150 words of sign language and proved that a chimp could be taught. However, as Nim grows he becomes more aggressive and his wilder nature takes over and the story takes a turn that is achingly sad. He can't live with humans because he's too aggressive. He can't live with other chimps because he's been raised in the manner of a human being. Nim's contribution to scientific research has been incredible, but rather than being celebrated, he was shut away for the rest of his life and more or less forgotten. Thanks for nothing.
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Bipeds behaving badly: Man's inherent inhumanity...
poe42622 May 2012
Warning: Spoilers
In Walter Hill's GENOCIDE 101 (GERONIMO), several Apache turncoats learn that trusting The White Man can backfire on you: they, too, are rounded up, disarmed, and sent to the concentration camps whose blueprints the Nazis would one day study. In PROJECT NIM, a handful of scientists- whose primary concerns seem to have been getting laid- kidnap and "indoctrinate" an innocent child (because ALL animals are innocent children) before abandoning him. Proof: Terrace actually went on camera and declared his own research an abject failure- and he was WRONG. (The fact that this guy threw in the towel when the supply of nubile young assistants dried up was just coincidence, right? And the fact that he was unable to see proof sitting right before his eyes was just myopia, right? My hairy ***...) In an age when we can literally kick the mentally ill and the physically infirm to the curb in this country, the inherent inhumanity these people display isn't at all surprising. The lowest of the Low would have to be the Mengele of the animal research facility, a murderer named Mahoney who wistfully says that "chimps are forgiving. They'll forgive you." Oh yeah? On what planet? Only Bob Ingersoll has the right to go to sleep knowing that he at least TRIED to make Nim's life livable. Forgiveness? ****, some of these people didn't even acknowledge that Nim could OUTSMART them.
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Compelling of the best films of any kind in 2011
asc8519 February 2012
Warning: Spoilers
As someone who didn't care for "Man on Wire," this director's previous film, and as someone who thinks critical response is often over-rated for documentaries, I was pleasantly surprised by "Project Nim." I thought it was the best documentary of 2011, and my wife thought it was the best film of 2011. This movie was extremely compelling from the start, and very moving throughout. I also thought it was interesting that what was "acceptable" science in the 70's has evolved into something that we look back on as something inhumane. What a difference 40 years makes! And the doctor who ran the study? What a jerk, not just in the callousness he displayed in his Nim experiment, but in the lack of ethics he had in sleeping with his students.
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Great movie - sad people...
jaquesminnaar11 January 2012
Warning: Spoilers
Great documentary.

I have been looking forward to watching this documentary for a while and expected a feel-good "human and primate interaction" story.

This is nothing like that at all and is quite disturbing and sad. After watching this movie I ended up hating the human participants involved in the life of Nim so much that it (almost) spoiled the whole movie experience for me.

You have a bunch of self righteous hippy (pseudo) scientists participating in a "cool" new experiment with no thought about the consequences to the animal involved.

One feels sad after watching Project Nim and I personally wished for a dreadful/sad ending to the pathetic Stephanie La Farge and "prof" Herb Terrace while watching this (never happened) - Stephanie (who initially raised Nim) seemed more interested in having intercourse with poor NIM than anything else...!

Great movie - sad people.
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Incredibly depressing
Leofwine_draca5 February 2014
Ostensibly a documentary about the world's most famous chimpanzee, who was taught to communicate with humans via sign language during a university experiment of the 1970s, PROJECT NIM is in fact about human failings. It's another nature-themed documentary that, along with the likes of BLACKFISH and THE COVE, makes you despair for mankind.

The story starts out well, with the impossibly cute baby chimp brought up as a human. Soon, though, the behaviour of some of the "scientists" looking after Nim begins to grate; some of them are a little too involved with their subject, while others are plain creepy. Later, Nim suffers a huge betrayal, and at this point the documentary takes a downward turn into one of the most depressing ever.

Hardly a heartwarming story then, in that it focuses on misery and despair for the majority of the running time, but nevertheless an important story that serves to highlight man's inhumanity towards the world he inhabits.
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Null and void from start.
c_a_simone21 December 2011
This is a movie about a project handle wrong from the starting line. At first I was intrigued by the idea of this movie. But upon the first few minutes I realized this is just a mess, they ruined their subject, NIM, right from the beginning. The woman Stephanie did nothing to try and raise the chimp in human fashion, outside of unconditional "love". She loved him, but she didn't guide him. This wasn't about accepting him as he was, the whole idea was to bring him up "human". She let him run free with no reinforcement to correct negative behavior to others. She seemed kindly enough, but so wrong for the intended purpose. By the time he was placed in the care of another more orderly individual, all characteristic traits had been ingrained in him. As with human kids their developmental stages end at 7, I am no expert but I imagine it is much earlier with chimps. The crucial time was missed and they thus messed up an animal, suspending him in a limbo of identity neither suiting him particular well.

The movie is more about a team of people trying to salvage and place an off the track train back on it, when the damage was already done.
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A Full Life: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
dallasryan9 July 2014
Warning: Spoilers
As in White Oleander, Alison Lohman's character goes through many obstactles going from foster home to foster home to institution to wherever the journey may take her character, and in a lot of ways, Nim is like Lohman's character. Nim lives a full life of ups and downs being taken away from his mother, going to one home, then another, then getting tested on for experiments, to going to a ranch. It is a rough and full life for Nim.

With that full life though, there is heartache that goes out to Nim from us, the viewer, at the same time there is a special connection with Nim too, knowing he is smart, special and we can really identify with him, not only with compassion, but with empathy on a human level, as Nim goes through the gamut of what us humans go through. He goes through anger, sadness, depression, happiness, resentment, friendships, love, hate, etc. And you cry out for Nim because you've been there.

When his his first human mother came back to visit him and got in the cage with him to where Nim almost killed her, it can be said that maybe Nim forgot who she was and that was just the chimp coming out in him. But who knows, maybe Nim did know who she was and hated her with much resentment for leaving him and for all the pain and suffering he's been through since then to only come back as if all was well, and he was going to show her not all was well. Who knows.

I think the experiment proved that you can treat chimps just like human beings as was the case from beginning to the end of Nim's life. I think Dr. Terrace was wrong, Nim was communicating, he understood the words to what he was feeling, and that's communication. So what if Nim didn't use complete sentences. Maybe those are complete sentences to a chimp or perhaps Nim just wasn't taught correctly to use complete sentences. Chimps still have their animal and natural innate instincts as all creatures on this planet do, and that was proved as well.

But the project proved true to where Nim was more than just an animal friend, he was our friend as a wonderful animal of course, but also as a sort of human being as well. He was our friend on multiple levels. Dr. Terrace got it wrong. Nim was human on many levels more than any chimp, and that's also what led to more of Nim's suffering too, being human.
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a documentary biased in the only possible direction
Colin Mulholland2 January 2012
This movie is not simply about Nim. It is about PROJECT Nim. It's the story of all the lives who were involved in this chimpanzee's journey from birth to death. It is the story of their love and their guilt.

Looking back at this experiment now it is clear what everyone lost. But do those of us who see this documentary now stand to gain something from everyone's experiences? Was that the REAL validity of the Nim experiment - to show us the carelessness with which humanity can treat the rest of the animal kingdom?

Everyone should have a similar reaction to the film, and that is perhaps because it is too narrow and biased in its telling of Nim's story. But it is more likely that there is only one conclusion to be drawn from this tragic reminder of science's cold, sterile, objective failings.

Nature or nurture? I believe it's very clear what Nim would choose.
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What has long, sharp fangs, wears diapers and lives on the Upper West Side?
The_late_Buddy_Ryan8 February 2013
Warning: Spoilers
Compared to such superstars of animal linguistics as Alex the talking parrot and Koko the signing gorilla, the late Nim Chimpsky (1973–2000) was very much a lesser light. All the same, his eventful early life has provided filmmaker James Marsh with the material for a fine documentary, as intense and involving as a first-rate fiction film; this one plays like it might have been scripted by Arthur C. Clarke (from a first draft by J.D. Salinger) and directed by Herzog ("Kaspar Hauser") or Truffaut ("Wild Child"). The story begins when Columbia psychologist Herb Terrace prevailed on a colleague (and ex-girlfriend), Stephanie LaFarge, to add a chimp to her already blended family of two adults, seven children and a German shepherd, raise him like a human child (which would include breast feeding) and teach him American Sign Language; the goal was to test Noam Chomsky's well known hypothesis that only the human brain could generate grammatical speech.

Nim Chimpsky (get it?) spent a year or two in the loosey-goosey LaFarge household on the Upper West Side—my wife used to see him stumping around the 'hood in diapers with his overprotective minders—then, when it appeared that his sign language skills were being neglected, he was sequestered with Terrace's assistant in a disused mansion in the Bronx and brought down to Columbia for classroom catchup sessions. By this time, he had grown into an unruly adolescent with long, sharp fangs, a short attention span and the strength of many men. When he attacked one of his sign-language tutors and tore her cheek open, Terrace shut the project down, and Nim was banished to the primate research center in Oklahoma where he was born. Terrace added insult to this act of treachery by publishing a book in which he portrayed Nim as a "brilliant beggar" who mimicked his teachers to get rewards—hugs, snacks and the occasional puff on a joint. Except for supervised outings (and a few brief escape attempts), Nim spent the rest of his life behind bars.

Since Nim was both an experimental subject and, at least for a few years, a chimp célèbre in his own right, Marsh had plenty of video clips to choose from; only purists will object to a couple of Errol Morris–style reenactments, and the interviews with the participants, thirty-odd years later, are fascinating. Terrace, especially as seen in the archival footage with his slicked-down comb-over and caterpillar mustache, makes a fine comic villain; his self-serving shiftiness contrasts amusingly with Nim's innocent seductions. We can empathize with Terrace's former assistant, Laura Pettito (now apparently a well known neuroscientist, though it isn't mentioned in the film), as she recalls how a brief, much-regretted affair with her boss compelled her to quit the project. Stephanie LaFarge comes across as a good-hearted, spacey 70s mom, the kind of character Dianne Wiest used to play; standouts among the supporting cast include Joyce Butler, a strong-minded alpha female who discouraged Nim from biting (biting her at any rate) by nipping him on the ear; and Bob Ingersoll, an affable Deadhead at the Oklahoma center who became Nim's BF and protector in his later years. The film wisely sidesteps the whole Chimpsky-Chomsky debate about animal communication, a debate that continues to sputter only because the Chomskyites keep moving the goalposts; I think most viewers would agree with something Bob Ingersoll said in an interview (don't think it's in the film) to the effect that the difference between Nim's signing "Stone smoke now!" and anyone else's saying "Dude, let's spark up a fatty!" is pretty much academic.
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Classy doc about a seriously un-classy Doc disturbs; does not enlighten
carolynshoe23 December 2011
James Marsh's 2008 Man On Wire: compelling documentary footage from the 1970s cut with here-they-are-now talking heads. Beautifully shot and put together. Massive WTF factor.

Philippe Petit took on the full weight of both gravity and the law in a series of sanity-defying tightrope walks culminating in, or rather between, the Twin Towers. Man On Wire (title from his NYPD charge sheet) explored the relationship between art, dedication, logistics, terror, bravado, charm and getting away with it. Accompanying WTF themes were Petit's glorious English and his relationships, both of which were jaw-dropping. You leave the cinema reeling.

James Marsh's 2010 Project Nim: compelling documentary footage from the 1970s cut with here-they-are-now talking heads. Beautifully shot and put together. Massive WTF factor.

Petit is here replaced by Nim Chimpsky, reared from a baby (that's a baby chimpanzee) by a hippie family under the auspices of University of Columbia linguistics professor Dr Herbert Terrace. Nim's pretty soon removed from the influence of hippies and then plunged into an ever-ghastlier series of environments which make being given spliffs and encouraged to explore Earth Mom's bodily bits seem, if not entirely sensible, at least benign by comparison. It seems an unsurprising fable about man's inhumanity to anthropomorphically-enhanced chimp-child (who is more humane and a damn sight cuter than we are, of course). Or is he? Project Nim's WTF factor doesn't lie in Nim himself. You catch yourself, against your will, trying to construct a personality for him out of what Marsh gives you, but that's ultimately about as deep as the exploration of being human as opposed to being an animal, and the role that language plays in that, goes. Project Nim's WTF factor lies in Dr Herb's remarkable unlikeability and his team of kid assistants' extraordinary naiveté, and that was never going to make Marsh's second outing as uplifting and mind-expanding as his first.
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Project Nim isn't up to par with other recent documentaries
estebangonzalez1019 January 2012
¨I thought wouldn't it be exciting to communicate with a chimp and find out what it was thinking.¨ Director James Marsh won an Oscar for his brilliant documentary, Man on Wire, which told the story of French tightrope walker Phillippe Petit who performed his routine across the Twin Towers in New York City. That film was very suspenseful and really hooked my attention. Project Nim, is also directed by Marsh, but it doesn't have the same suspense that that film had. Man on Wire kept me interested in how Petit was able to achieve his goal, he was a very charismatic figure, and on the other hand Project Nim was kind of slow paced and didn't have any interesting characters rather than the Chimp himself. Nim (the name of the chimp) is fun to watch on screen, but it didn't work as a full length documentary for me. The story does raise several questions about how inhumane we can be at times and how our ¨scientific projects¨ have interfered in many animals lives. Questions which I already was familiar with, so this movie really didn't surprise me one bit, like say The Cove did with the slaughtering of the dolphins in Japan. That was a much more effective and eye-opening documentary. Project Nim is a well made documentary, but it really falls short compared to last year's great ones such as Inside Job, Restrepo, and Exit Through the Gift Shop. I haven't been able to watch many documentaries this year, but I heard this was on many critics' favorite lists so I went ahead and checked it out, but felt a bit disappointed with it. The bar has already been raised high for these movies (and Marsh himself is responsible for this after his excellent Man on Wire) so I really can't recommend this one as highly as I would've like too.

Hebert Terrace was a professor at Columbia University during the 70's when he came up with the idea of trying to teach a chimpanzee how to communicate like a human being. Considering human and chimp DNA is very similar he believed that it could be possible for a chimp to communicate what he was thinking if he was raised in a normal human environment. So Terrace chose a newborn chimp, separated it from his mother, named it Nim, and gave him to a human family which would be in charge of nurturing and taking care of it as if it were a normal human being. Terrace chose Stephanie Lafarge and her family to raise the animal. It was the seventies, the hippy movement, and her family was pretty much very liberal. They had no idea of how to raise the chimp and they practically let it run around everywhere. The monkey spend the first years with that family, until Terrace decided to move him to a bigger home with more experienced professors who could teach Nim how to communicate better. Nim learned several sign languages and was taught at first by Laura-Ann Petitto, but as the chimp grew up he became more dangerous. He never lost his animals instincts although he did make some progress in communication. After five years Terrace decided to end the project as he felt the research wasn't going anywhere, and Nim was sent back to a chimp refugee where he spent most of the time locked up in cages although he felt most attached to Bob Ingersoll who continued the communication process with the animal and spent time playing with it in the wild. The documentary continues to track Nim's life until his death.

The scientific project really resulted in being inhumane for the chimp because despite making some progress he never really adapted well when he was taken back with the rest of the chimps. He had been raised as a human for so long that after the project ended, Nim continued suffering the exploitations he went through. There were many people who helped Nim and really cared for him, but at the same time the entire experiment resulted in being a negative thing for the chimp. Project Nim never tries to be preachy or tell us what to do, it simply points out the facts. Marsh interviews everyone that was a part of Nim's life and shows a lot of footage that was used during the investigation. The documentary is really interesting on paper, but I really felt it dragged for some while and wasn't as entertaining as other recent documentaries. Marsh is a great director and he has great ideas, but I don't think this film really deserves an Oscar nomination. It's still a good film and if you're interested in animal behavior you might enjoy this a little more than I did. I'm more into sports and preferred the Uruguayan documentary Manyas much more, which dealt with the soccer fanatics and the way they felt for their team.
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"Distinctly communicative, harmonically photographic..."
Sindre Kaspersen4 May 2014
English screenwriter and director James Marsh's third documentary feature is inspired by real events in the life of a Chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky and is an adaptation of a book from 2008 called "Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human" by author Elizabeth Hess. It premiered in the World Cinema Documentary Competition section at the 27th Sundance Film Festival in 2011, was shot on locations in America and is a UK production which was produced by English producer Simon Chinn. It tells the story about a primate named Nim Chimpsky who was born in the early 1960s and who in the early 1970s moved in with an American family who were assigned to treat him as humanely as possible and to teach him to communicate with sign language.

Distinctly and precisely directed by English filmmaker James Marsh, this finely paced documentary which is narrated from multiple viewpoints and at times from the main subject's point of view, draws a profoundly involving and heartrending portrayal of an animal's interaction with humans during a scientific project and his ability to adapt in an unfamiliar environment. While notable for its reverent cinematography by cinematographer Michael Simmonds, production design by production designer Markus Kirschner, film editing by film editor Jinx Godfrey and use of sound, this character-driven and narrative-driven story about the life of a Chimpanzee and the people he acquainted which underlines the exceptional aspects of cinema and where it exceeds its potential, depicts a perspicaciously humane study of character and contains a great and timely score by composer Dickon Hinchliffe.

This informatively biographical, distinguishably sociological and densely historic though present retelling of real events which is set in the United States in the late 20th century and where the distinctions and similarities between human beings and chimpanzees becomes as apparent as the ricochet consequences of attempting to integrate and humanize an innate non-conformist, is impelled and reinforced by its cogent narrative structure, substantial character development, rhythmic continuity, use of archive footage and the narration of the interviewees' as a narrative device, the introduction of a man named Bob Ingersoll and the many charming, humorous, unsettling and genuinely gripping scenes of the socially adept Nim whose graceful presence lingers and affirms the right of animals to be treated with humanity. A distinctly communicative, harmonically photographic and admirable work of art.
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The Theory of Nim
sol-8 December 2017
This documentary from James Marsh - director of 'The Theory of Everything' - focuses on another curious chapter in twentieth century science as a baby chimpanzee was raised in a human household in the 1970s with the hope of it learning to communicate. Named Nim Chimpsky (after famed linguist Noam Chomsky), the chimp would go on to learn and use sign language, but as he grew older and scientists became wary of his dangerous strength, Nim would eventually end up abandoned and displaced. Focusing on the cruelty of removing Nim from his mother in the first few minutes, Marsh's agenda is obvious from early on as the film sets out to question ethical responsibilities in scientist research. This agenda becomes even more pronounced in the second half of the movie, however, there is nothing especially enlightening in terms of how inhumane scientific research can be. The first stretch of the film is utterly fascinating though as the scientists wax poetic about communicating with animals and as we see Nim's progress. Misguided as the scientists involved with Nim were, their ideas and goals are intriguing and as a documentary, 'Project Nim' might have played out better with their intentions in focus. Yes, the real story is with the horrors that Nim faced in post-experiment years, but it may have been interesting to learn more about those who were so cavalier with his life.
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awful tale of animal-abuse
clytamnestra25 November 2016
Warning: Spoilers
Whenever we forget how sexist and cruel the '70s were there are stories like this to remind us: a supposedly serious researcher keeps making decisions with his dick and shows zero interest in the emotional well-being of his study-subject. It starts when a kid-chimp is taken from his mother by force. As nothing says 'grow up to be a well-adjusted adult' like being kidnapped from your loving mother. Then the baby is dumped with the professor's ex-girlfriend (she is a woman you see, and he is a man so he cannot possibly take care of a baby). When she turns out to be a child-neglecting hippie (letting her ape- baby smoke weed, not taking any notes of the experiment) he puts the ape with his new teenage girlfriend. SignLanguage-teaching now begins. This set-up doesn't work out either, but luckily there's finally a proper teacher who teaches the poor ape some rudimentary social skills such as to not bite people (the professor dislikes her, presumably because she's more interested in his assistant's dick). Nim-the-talking-ape is by now world-famous, but he's still a wild and physically strong animal (and an heavily abused one at that) so he lashes out and needs to be put in a cage, with other apes. After a difficult start he finds his turn, with a chimp-girlfriend and a relaxed approach to his sign-language-lessons. With his chance of being 'the guy who made an ape into a human' gone the prof makes a 180 as 'the guy who proved that apes are definitely not human'. What little interest he had in Nim as a person completely gone by now. Nim gets screwed over by humanity again when he and his new ape- family are shipped of to nasty drugs-tests. After lots of activism he ends up in a sanctuary where he lives out his remaining years with some ups and downs.
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Tragic Story of (Human) Animal Brutality
Love_Life_Laughter25 October 2014
Nim was raised as a human, breast fed, given clothing, a human family, a house, bed and toys. In this loving environment he naturally developed a facility for language, was toilet trained, learning dozens of sign language words, and the ability to make sentences. He formed lasting friendships with some student teachers that tried throughout their lives, with the limited power they had, to protect him. Once grown, as part of a natural adolescence that included a period of danger to his teachers as he learned his own strength and looked for a mate, he was relegated to dirty cages, and had a near escape from the animal laboratories of nightmares in which conscious live chimps are immobilized in painful brain experiments. The emotional brutality shown towards Nim, particularly by Columbia Professor Hubert Terrace, is breathtaking. Terrace's propensity to sleep with Nim's female caretakers and act out rather strange family dynamics - first with a former lover who just married someone else, and later with the "next hot new thing" - could keep Freud busy for a long time. The most human character in the movie- loving, caring, expressive, communicative, and playful - was, ironically, Nim. I'm ashamed to be part of a culture that treated such a precious soul to such cruelty over so many years. The twisted power structures that enabled men like Terrace to use Nim as a tool to seek fame, and discard him without a thought like his student amours, rankle to the core. Late in his life, Nim kept trying to escape his cold cage to the house on the property - where he still felt he belonged. One wonders what Jane Goodall would think of our brutality towards Nim. I will never forget the interview in which his loving caretaker brought him to the brutal cages where he was met with a cattle prod by yet another heartless professor. I would like to put the cattle prod right back on him. Nim, on behalf of all feeling human beings, I'm sorry.
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