Project Nim is the story of a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky (named after the famous linguistics professor Noam Chomsky) who in the 70s was separated from his mother at birth and given over to Columbia Professor in primate cognitive abilities Herb Terrace (who looks like a cross between JK Simmons and Gomez Adams) in a radical experiment to see if an ape raised by humans could develop his own tools for language.
Herb gives Nim to a former student (and former lover) Stephanie LaFarge who has seven kids and lives a liberal lifestyle in New York. There Nim is naively treated just like a human child – dressed in clothes, taught basic sign language and even breast fed by Stephanie. But Stephanie’s hippie lifestyle and lack of discipline means that Nim runs wild for the first few years of his life and project is in danger of losing any scientific merit.
When Herb gets more funding, he removes Nim from Stephanie’s control and moves him to an upstate New York mansion placing him with succession of carers including graduate student Laura-Ann Petito (who subsequently becomes another one of Herb’s lovers), language teacher Joyce Butler and kindly Grateful Dead fan Bob Ingersoll.
But as Nim starts to grow in size and strength (an adult chimp is five to six times stronger than a human), his underlying savage nature starts to show through and the humans are ill-prepared for the change in his parent-child dynamic.
Director James Marsh has put together an impressive array of footage from old home movie clips to contemporary interviews. Everyone involved in Nim’s life has thankfully decided to cooperate so the interviews are comprehensive as well as incredibly candid. Nim is delightful and learns an impressive number of signs but Project Nim reveals just as much about its human participants as it does about its protagonist.
Terrace shows (perhaps unwittingly) that Nim was a tool for him to insert himself into the lives of women he was attracted to – Nim gets in between Stephanie and her new husband – a way in which the domineering Terrace is able to control her yet again. And when Terrace loses interest, he places Nim in the loving arms of an attractive teenage grad student with whom he inevitably has a relationship.
If anything, this cavalier attitude to science is one of the most distressing things about the film. Nim is instantly lovable and appears to learn new words every day but he’s not given the conditions he needs as an animal, he’s merely naively anthropomorphised. So when he does inevitably lash out violently, sympathies are still with him rather than his human counterparts.
Terrace ultimately concluded that Nim’s perceived language ability was just operant conditioning (a criticism that Noam Chomsky himself has levelled at many animal language projects) and it’s a shame that the film doesn’t explore the scientific ramifications of that in more depth. Nevertheless, Project Nim is an engaging documentary, intriguing but also profoundly sad.
Makes a brilliant double bill with Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.