Reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival 2011.
If James Marsh’s 2008 “Man on Wire” was Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk by way of “Ocean’s Eleven,” “Project NIM” could be described as the story of Herbert S. Terrace’s chimpanzee study by way of, well, “Splice.” But maybe it’s better summed up by one of the interviewees shrugged explanation for what must have looked like a much saner idea at the time: “It was the ’70s.” Terrace, a professor at Columbia, headed up a project to raise a chimp named Nim as a human, to teach him sign and observe to what extent the animal would be able to communicate and form sentences in order to learn more about our own relationship with language development. In theory. In practice, as recounted by the film, the experiment was a hopeless jumble of personal entanglements, squishy hippiedom, safety and ethical concerns and heartbreak. And getting the chimp high, which at least two of his caregivers attempt.
Terrace first hands the infant Nim to Stephanie LaFarge, a psychologist and his former lover, who has no significant experience with chimps or sign language, and who raises him in her family’s Manhattan brownstone as she would a human foundling, swaddling him in diapers, letting him frolic with her other children, even breastfeeding him. When Terrace becomes skeptical of LaFarge’s permissive parenting, he spruces Nim away to an idyllic estate in Riverdale where the chimp is cared for by a series of well-meaning if not always very trained teachers, including the young Laura, with whom Terrace becomes emotionally entangled and then discards, couple Bill and Joyce, sign instructor Renee. It’s Nim who’s the through line in the film, and so as these people pass in and then out of his life, they slide out of the screen, the camera keeping its gaze on the primate’s journey from famous, coddled center of attention in New York to returned resident in the Oklahoma primate colony in which he was born to medical research fodder in a nightmarish facility.
Nim is an adorable baby, a mischievous, destructive youth, a sometimes frightening adult chimp and a slate onto which everyone around him seems to projecy. Most importantly, he is, despite the way he’s treated, an animal, one capable, as the years go on, of considerable destruction. Many of the interviewees bear scars from his attacks, and one almost died at his hand. As for how much ASL Nim has actually learned, it’s a matter of debate — Terrace himself has questioned the validity of the claims of his own study and other similar ones, and as much as we see of the animal in the accrued archival footage of which the film is primarily constructed, the extent to which he has any exceptional ability to communicate or connect with humans seems as much an aspect of the personalities of those claiming to see these things as anything we ourselves glimpse on screen. As the film turns from a fascinating documentation of an experiment that blurred the lines between species into a more depressing and expected tale of animal cruelty, the main revelation of “Project Nim” isn’t that it was inappropriate for these people to treat Nim like a human as much as it was when they all eventually stopped.
“Project NIM” does not yet have U.S. distribution.