“Project Nim” Is No “Planet of the Apes”
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Nim Chimpsky is the star of “Project Nim,” and his name might give you a clue as to his simian ancestry. Nim was a chimpanzee studied in Columbia University’s Animal Language Acquisition project. In other words, he was being trained to communicate with humans.
Now playing at the Tropic Cinema, “Project Nim” is an interesting documentary to be booked alongside “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Hmm.
Nim Chimpsky’s name was a parody on Noam Chomsky, a pioneer theorist of human language structure who believed humans were “wired” for language and animals were not.
Behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace conceived the study to refute Chomsky’s thesis that only humans have language ability. After all, 98.7% of the DNA in humans and chimps is identical. So why underestimate them.
Nim acquired 125 signs, but that fell short of Chomsky’s definition of language. Terrace came to believe his experiment had failed.
Truth was, he failed Nim.
After the experiment ended, Nim wound up at an animal-testing laboratory managed by NYU. But Cleveland Amory’s Fund for Animals purchased Nim (the first animal it had ever paid for) and transferred him to their Black Beauty ranch in Texas. However, with no other chimps or human companions around, his life was more isolated than ever. Nim died of natural causes at the young age of 26.
Director James Marsh (Oscar-winner for “Man on Wire”) says, “‘Project Nim’ is an unusual proposition for a film. We’ve tried to apply some of the principles and techniques of a traditional biography to the life story of an animal.” The storyline follows an individual chimpanzee from infancy to adulthood.
At first Nim seems so human. “He laughs, he cries, he craves attention and affection,” says Marsh. “But his own unique nature also asserts itself. His first ‘mother,’ Stephanie Lafarge, is quite shocked by ‘the wild animal in him’ and this continues to emerge powerfully as he grows.”
In the end, Nim’s is a sad story, a chimpanzee subjected to captivity and an unnatural life. He was snatched from his simian mother Carolyn shortly after birth. Herb Terrance, a callous, publicity-currying professor who slept with his students, used Nim for his own ends. Nim’s hippie surrogate mother failed him. His Columbia teachers proved unable to help him. The animal habitat in Oklahoma tossed him into a cage. NYU’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP) brought terror into Nim’s life. Even well-meaning Cleveland Amory contributed to his misery.
“If there’s a hero in the story beyond its chimp protagonist,” says Marsh, “it might be Bob Ingersoll, the pot-smoking Grateful Dead fan whom the scientists disregarded. Bob didn’t need signs to communicate with Nim and didn’t really care about the language debate at all. Bob never forsook Nim and once they re-connected after many years apart, he trusts him enough to casually stick his hand into Nim’s mouth as they played. Nim just bites down on the hand with calculated gentleness when he is perfectly capable of biting it clean off. As Bob recalls, Nim’s favorite sign was the sign he invented: ‘play,’ and it meant ‘Let’s play together.’”
You will find the story of Nim unsettling. As one viewer said, “The whole thing is just painful to watch. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the chimp and anger at the people ...”
It may make you question where we stand on the evolutionary scale.
[from Solares Hill]