From the Oscar-winning team behind MAN ON WIRE comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Following Nim's extraordinary journey through human society, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature - and indeed our own - is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling.Written by
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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