Project Nim (2011)
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Once they were done using him they abandon him to bared cages and chores. I'm still not sure what they expected making the movie, other than to confirm humans are the animals, and not the superior race at all.
So they made money on a book, on a movie and the only really important cost was only a chimps life, and least we not forget giving him pot and alcohol.
Awesome job guys!
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.
Based on a true story.
He (the professor that is) apparently glued his remaining hair over the top of his skull and set out to separate a chimpanzee-baby from its mother. Meanwhile we are told that it is actually the sixth time this mother gets separated from a new-born baby.
The chimpanzee baby is placed in a family with 6 children who must all treat the little animal in the same manner one would treat a human baby. This family is described as bunch of hippies living in a 'loose atmosphere'. Apparently its not to the chimp's liking, and after it bites the mother-hippie one time too many, it gets transferred from one new environment to the next.
Meanwhile we learn that the professor has found a junior-researcher called laura, with whom he briefly has a relationship. When the professor ends this relationship, the junior-researcher quits the project. This is very upsetting for our baby-chimp as it was just starting to accept laura as its new mother.
Now we see how the chimp is allowed to drink alcohol, and how it is taught to smoke pot and hash. This was the point where I forwarded the movie to the very end, where I was told that chimpanzees are really wonderful animals.
From my perspective, was the US not such a completely screwed-up country with a vast majority of screwed up people, I would notify the authorities of this misadventure in the hope to stop this professor maniac and his not-so-hippie clan to ever come up with anything like this again.
I like the Documentary for informing me of this cruel act and how it was done, but hate that the experiment happened.
Herbert Terrace , the head of the project , comes out of this really badly. Not only was he pervert who slept with the young girls who worked with him ( god knows what they saw in him) he also didn't care what happened to Nim. A nasty little man that should be ashamed of himself.
The documentary has lots of archive footage of Nim and the many people who worked with him but it still did not have the affect on me that it obviously did on others. Perhaps it's because i didn't really feel for the ape. It bit too many people to feel much sympathy with him.
This documentary is described on the poster as Great , Powerful and breathtaking .Sadly, It was none of these.
The story that unfolds, is very engaging and might leave you with strong feelings. That is if you have a heart for animals. Though I guess if you can't stand them, than those are strong feelings too. But then you shouldn't watch it. Stay with the discovery channel or something like that. This one tells a story that is as intriguing as a feature film. I went through a few emotions until the end ... And was left with mixed feelings ... which is a good thing!
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.
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.
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.
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.