Eric Plaag and Matt Smith

Project Nim: A Review

In Film, Reviews on July 29, 2011 at 11:52 am

By Eric Plaag

For years, my wife Teresa has harbored an insatiable desire to own a pet chimpanzee, one that she could dress up in people clothes and share cigarettes and hamburgers with and take out for people experiences, like eating at a restaurant, going to the movies, and even riding a rollercoaster. I have cautioned her repeatedly that this entire fantasy is a fundamentally bad idea. Not even Travis the chimp’s well-publicized vicious attack on his owner’s friend in 2009 could dissuade her, though. In fact, when this incident first occurred, Teresa remarked, “Well it serves that woman right for getting a new haircut that frightened Travis.”

Now, at long last, I can rest easy with the knowledge that a chimpanzee will not be inhabiting our home anytime soon, given that Teresa has seen (most of) James Marsh’s (Man on Wire) fascinating new documentary Project Nim, which recounts the harrowing story of Nim Chimpsky’s enrollment in an animal language acquisition experiment at Columbia University in 1973. Filmed with a visual style and narrative structure that strongly suggests Fog of War without Errol Morris’s pointed, ethereal questioning, Project Nim perhaps reveals far more about the socialization and anthropology of its human subjects than it does about Nim himself.

The brainchild of Columbia professor Herbert S. Terrace, the Nim experiment intended to take Nim from his mother, who was housed at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, and place him at only two weeks of age in the care of Stephanie LeFarge and her children, who would raise him as if he were LeFarge’s own child. The purpose, of course, was to challenge Noam Chomsky’s controversial thesis that language development was a strictly human capability by training Nim not only to sign but also to create grammatically complex sentences in his communications. From the beginning, though, the experiment was a scientific disaster, beset not only by LeFarge’s refusal to impose any form of discipline on Nim (much as she had apparently done with her own children) but also by the fact that LeFarge and her family knew no sign language, as well as the complex human relationships among LeFarge, Terrace (her former professor and lover), and LeFarge’s husband, which seemed at times to inflict a perverse intrusion on Nim’s development. It didn’t help matters that Nim and LeFarge’s husband despised one another, too. LeFarge, we learn, had her own designs on the experiment as well: “I never felt sexually engaged with Nim. [But] there was sensuality.”

To create more structure and eliminate some of these early problems, Terrace brought in Laura-Ann Petitto, one of his young students at Columbia, to take over Nim’s training and socialization. Moving the project away from LeFarge’s home to a remote, university-owned estate in New York, Terrace initially created an environment in which it might seem that Nim, his handlers, and the experiment could thrive. Within a year’s time, Nim knew as many as 125 signs and frequently cobbled them together to create the appearance of sentences, even though they lacked syntax. As Nim grew older, though, he also become more difficult to handle, especially after Petitto left the experiment largely because her romantic relationship with Terrace suddenly fizzled. Such disruptions took their toll on Nim, who was increasingly aggressive toward his handlers. Such behavior no doubt reflected Terrace’s waning interest in the project and the declines in Nim’s treatment and living conditions. After an especially brutal attack by Nim on another researcher following Terrace’s termination of the experiment and Nim’s transfer back to the primate research laboratory in Oklahoma, Nim’s future looked even more bleak. As with Travis, some associated with the experiment concluded that the problems with Nim were strictly a consequence of their misguided efforts to socialize him to human experience, rather than a result of the influence of any of the numerous flaws in the human beings surrounding him. “You can’t give human nurturing,” Petitto observes midway through the film, “to an animal that can kill you.”

To recount how things turn out for Nim after his transfer would ruin the genius and the lessons of Project Nim, which need to be seen rather than read here to be fully appreciated, but take this as fair warning that the horrors witnessed on screen prompted several in our audience (including Teresa) to walk out on the film. Doing so, however, is a mistake. Wait it out, for the payoff will make enduring all that viscera worthwhile. What is most curious and compelling about Project Nim is how much it reveals about Nim’s various handlers and the ways in which their purported desire to treat animals well does not comport with the actual practices and outcomes of their behavior. While Project Nim unintentionally raises the age-old question of why anyone with a checkered past like that of any one of Nim’s handlers would dare to sit down for a Mike Wallace-style interview to confront that checkered past, the film nevertheless succeeds in assigning responsibility for the project’s failures to the very people who so willfully and recklessly disregarded Nim’s long-term well-being from the beginning. “I strongly believe we made a commitment to him, and we failed,” one of Nim’s handlers explains. “And shame on us.” Even the stereotypical bad guys in this story manage to get it mostly right, even if doing so is far too little and far too late. One doctor, who conducted hepatitis vaccine tests on chimpanzees like Nim, seems to confront himself late in the film, even if his confession is accompanied by a bit of MacNamara-like, self-reflexive apologia: “There is no way to carry out scientific research on animals and have it be humane. Because you’ve already put them in a cage. It’s all downhill from there.”

What I admired most about Marsh’s handling of his subjects in Project Nim is his willingness and courage to take on those whom we might customarily regard as animal advocates (such as likeable university folks engaged in the cuteness of trying to teach a chimpanzee to communicate), and his skill in confronting them (and us) with the implications of their actions and/or omissions. All of this is accomplished without the intrusion of Marsh or any other narrator or interviewer. Yes, Project Nim is surely rife with gatekeeping, regardless of the absence of any narrative presence, but the use of such an abundance of archival footage, in which our worst fears about the human and animal subjects are often confirmed, coupled with the incisive revelations made by those whom Marsh allows to speak for themselves about their crimes, in the end yields a film that has the power not only to move but also to motivate even the most reluctant and jaded among us when it comes to considering the importance of animal rights advocacy. Project Nim might not compel you to stop eating meat or wearing your grandmother’s furs, but I bet it will make you reconsider just how presumptuous and self-centered it is for us to demand that animals—domesticated or otherwise—adapt to our ways of inhabiting, using, and, yes, abusing this world that we keep insisting is ours and ours alone.

Theaters, 4 out of 5 stars


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