Project Nim (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In 1973, a baby chimpanzee was taken from its mother to be raised by Stephanie LaFarge, wife of a rich hippie poet, in the upper West Side in New York City. The experiment was led by Dr. Hebert Terrace, professor of psychology in Columbia University, in which he hoped to discover whether or not a chimpanzee, given that it is raised like a human child in every way possible, could learn sign language not only by means of communication but also constructing sentences and following set grammatical rules.
Directed by James Marsh, “Project Nim” is a fascinating look at the successes, failures, and difficulties of working with an animal to further knowledge. Although I knew that the chimpanzee, amusingly named Nim Chimpsky, was able to learn hundreds of words using sign language, I did not know much about him and the scientists involved outside of psychology and linguistics textbooks.
That is why I appreciated the interviews from the researchers who had first-hand experience with the primate. The camera is able to capture the energy and glimmer behind their eyes as they reminisced about how wonderful it was to work and communicate with something so close to our species yet so alien at the same time. I liked that the movie does not simply throw out tiny, seemingly superfluous details like how holding a baby chimpanzee feels like compared to how it is like to hold a human baby. Given that my only experience with a chimp is only as far as me hastily giving it a banana, I could not help wonder how it must be like to physically interact with it.
The documentary goes beyond words. There are nicely assimilated archival footages during and between interviews. It seems like the more time we observe Nim, the chimp begins to share more similarities with a very hyperactive child who wants to touch and get inside everything even if it is something as nondescript as a cardboard box. I wondered if Nim, like a child likely would, imagined that the box was like fortress. Was he able to feign emotions like fear during pretend play?
By showing us video clips without dialogue, the picture gives us a chance to ponder about many possibilities. I can imagine a young aspiring scientist watching this film and being inspired to take the experiment a bit further given that we have technology now that was not yet available in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
However, Nim’s interactions with humans are not always positive. Despite its child-like behavior, the picture makes the point that Nim, despite being raised as a human, was still a wild animal with specific needs. The scientists recalled the negative side of working with Nim and some of the details are quite scary. For example, some of them were actually hit on the head on purpose (one woman’s head was bashed on the pavement) because Nim was in a state rage and others were bitten to the point where several of them had to go to the hospital for emergency surgery. As Nim grew up, there were many more complications that the scientists were not prepared for or did not expect to deal with.
“Project Nim” runs a bit too long mostly in the latter quarter but the subject remains consistently interesting. If I happen to see a chimpanzee the next time I visit a zoo, I will think twice about those eyes looking back at me.