Review: Project Nim

Academy Award-winning documentary filmmakers Simon Chinn and James Marsh take their cameras into the fascinating story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised as a human.

project nim, nim chimpsky, james marsh,

Project Nim is the fascinating new documentary feature film from Man On Wire director James Marsh and producer Simon Chinn. Mixing archival footage, stylised reconstruction and interviews with those involved, the film looks at the life of a chimpanzee who underwent groundbreaking research into his ability to learn and then communicate through sign language. The story, inspired by Elizabeth’s Hess’ book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, follows Nim’s life from birth when he is placed into the hands of a surrogate family to be raised as a human baby. Marsh then takes us through each stage of Nim’s existence. From the early exchanges with Stephanie Lafarge’s family, project leader Herbert Terrace’s extensive research at an ex-presidential mansion, and the subsequent demise of Terrace’s passion or willingness to continue the project leading to Nim’s captivity and heartbreaking entry into a medical research testing facility.

The film is as much an absorbing story of a chimpanzee’s extraordinary life as it is a captivating tale of the humans that raised, experimented on and imprisoned him. The Academy Award-winning director/producer team of James Marsh and Simon Chinn bring together an exhaustive collection of riveting archival footage, particularly that shot by Stephanie Lafarge’s family. Lafarge is the first human Nim has major contact with, becoming his surrogate mother. Their relationship is as interesting as it is mystifying. The moral implications of her breast-feeding the chimp and encouraging him to smoke pot (“It was the seventies”, she says at one point, referring to herself as a new-age hippy) raise more than a few eyebrows, but Lefarge’s fascination with Oedipal characteristics leads to the formation of an odd sexuality between the human mother and her chimpanzee child.

Project leader Herbert Terrace, believing Lefarge’s home environment isn’t conducive to the sort of research he wants to carry out, takes Nim away from the family and places him in the care of several researchers from Columbia University. At an ex-presidential mansion acquired for the project, Nim is meticulously taught American sign-language, where he begins to communicate through primitive sentences. Marsh focuses on the people involved, allowing the science to take a back seat. He does make a point of highlighting the chimp’s growing aggressive behaviour that includes biting many of the researcher’s involved and viciously attacking one woman. Terrace, who is interviewed for the film, plays down the violent aspects of Nim’s life, struggling to recall whether hospital treatment was ever needed for the mauled research assistance who ended up with a huge open wound on her face. Curiously, given a Chimpanzee’s DNA shares over ninety-five percent similarity with a human’s DNA, perhaps it is Nim’s aggression that signals the human characteristics of his existence more than his ability to perform sign language. Marsh, through his focus on the ethnological aspect of the story, tantalises intriguingly with the thought: Is Nim’s aggressive behaviour any different, or any worse, than that apparent in the human world?

The implications of raising a chimpanzee in a way that mimics human life, and consequently holding him in captivity are the film’s most interesting aspects. Marsh highlights the moral conundrum: Nim is raised as a human child but then treated as a caged animal and even subjected to medical research. Is it ethically right to raise an animal with obvious intelligence in such a way as to advance that intelligence and then place him back in captivity? Further to this is the fact for the first five years of his life he never sees another member of his own species and only understands life as it has been shown to him by humans.

It is because of this that project leader Herbert Terrace comes off worse in the film. He conceived of the project as an advancement on R. Allen and Beatrix Gardner’s experiment Project Washoe, an earlier investigation involving a chimp being raised as a child. But his methods and conclusions have been widely criticised. It is little surprise that Marsh presents him as a self-obsessed egotist who sees the project as a way to gain recognition for himself. He rarely spends direct time with Nim, showing up for photo shoots and television interviews and allowing his varied research assistants to do the work. It is no coincidence that Terrace hires a number of attractive female researchers. His motivation for doing so is nothing less than to support his own ego. Stephanie Lefarge acknowledges that she had a sexual relationship with Terrace, and during the project, Laura-Ann Pettito and Terrace also had a short relationship which she says ended as abruptly as it started. Once the project is concluded and Nim is suffering medical research testing, Terrace is too busy picking up cheques for his book deal than to help the chimp he took from its mother several years earlier.

And yet, while it makes for compulsive viewing, Marsh pays too little attention to the science of the project. The speakers make their own conclusions about Nim’s abilities and the success or failure of the experiment in their eyes, but we don’t see enough if Nim’s signing abilities or behaviour to be able to make our own judgement. Certainly, Marsh’s focus is therefore on the impact Nim played on the lives he interacted with rather than the impact those lives had on him.

But nothing should take away from what is a truly fascinating experience that will both break and warm hearts with its moving portrayal of a story that is ostensibly about our relationship with animals. Marsh’s intelligent construction of the story focuses on the human aspect of Nim’s tale, and consequently questions the moral and ethical implications of the scientific investigation without preaching on animal welfare issues. With some fantastic newly recorded interviews involving the key players in Nim’s story including project leader Herbert Terrace, and sequences from archival footage taken throughout Nim’s life, the film is both an engaging real life drama and an interesting conundrum on the human condition.

Review by Daniel StephensSee all reviews

Directed by: James Marsh
Produced by: Simon Chinn
Starring: Herbert Terrace, Stephanie Lefarge, Jenny Lee, Laure-Ann Petitto, Renne Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, Bill Tynan
Released: 2011 / Genre: Documentary / Country: UK / IMDB

Buy on DVD: DVD | Blu-ray

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Project Nim is released on DVD in the UK January 9th

About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    DEZMOND Reply

    I see you were really inspired by this one, Dan!
    It sounds like a really interesting film, but I hope it will manage to raise some questions and maybe change some things?
    I’m not sure I would have enough strength to watch it, though, I’m terribly sensitive when it comes to animals and their maltreatment 🙁
    I shed a tear a few days ago when a blind man entered the bus I was in, with a guide dog, and when he sat down, the doggie put his head into his lap, it was so touching…

  2. Avatar
    Dan Reply

    @Dezmond: That is a very touching moment. I have a labrador myself and I know how affectionate they can be.

    This film is definitely worth seeing as a human tale as much as it is about Nim the chimpanzee. It raises some important questions about our relationship with animals and about us as human beings. It is very well made.

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    Max Reply

    I agree that it is a lot about the different people Nim met in his life. I decided to see this based on the directors previous work, Man on Wire, and this movie is almost just as good. The only documentary I really wanted to see at IFF Boston, it remains in my top documentaries of the year.

  4. Avatar
    ruth Reply

    Wonderful review, Dan. This sounds like it’s going to be hard to watch for the ethical issues it represents… no matter how cute Nim is.

  5. Avatar
    Will Reply

    Definitely one of the better documentaries this year. James Marsh knows how to put a movie together, for sure. This is all I’ve seen from him and I really need to check out some of his other stuff. Great review, Dan. I agree that there isn’t enough about the actual science of the project in the film, but what’s there is quite good.

  6. Avatar
    Sam Fragoso Reply

    I’m trying to find some location to see this film – but can’t find it.

    It may be on iTunes.

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