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“Project Nim,” reviewed

“Project Nim,” reviewed (photo)

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This was the experiment: take a chimpanzee, raise it from birth like a human baby, and teach it to communicate with sign language. In other words: can you teach the animal right out of an animal? In his powerful new documentary “Project Nim,” director James Marsh chronicles the highly unorthodox 1970s linguistics experiment that sought to do just that. Some of the people he meets along the way could use their own lessons on how to act like a human.

The experiment was the brainchild of Columbia University Professor Herb Terrace, who gave a chimp named Nim Chimpsky to one of his former students when he was less than two weeks old. Terrace told the ex-student, Stephanie, to raise the baby as a member of her family. So she did: clothing and diapering him, and teaching him sign language. But since Stephanie was a bit of a hippie that also meant letting him try alcohol and pot and even breast feeding him.

In many ways, baby Nim was like any human child: capable of great compassion (Stephanie’s daughter talks about how he used to kiss away her tears when she was sad) and prone to wild mood swings. But as he got older and began to pick up sign language, Terrace reasserted his dominance over the experiment, if you will, and reclaimed Nim, moving him to an estate where he could be monitored and tested full-time by a hand-picked staff of Columbia students and researchers, many of whom, in what I’m sure was just an incredible coincidence, were beautiful single women. The narrative Marsh weaves is thorny with jealousies and broken love affairs between Terrace and his staff. Animal urges, it seems, are not the exclusive province of animals.

Nim’s story seems at first like a cut-and-dried lesson in the power of nature over nurture. No matter how much his human companions dressed him or taught him to use the toilet Nim was still an animal, and by the time he was five years old he was too big, too strong, and too much of an aggressive, dominant chimpanzee to pretend otherwise. But allow me to propose an alternate theory: Nim’s childhood consisted of one jarring scenery change after another, and his human protectors often squabbled over custody of him like a bunch of divorcing parents. In all likelihood, Nim’s increasingly disobedient behavior was a simple case of genetic programming. But maybe the crazed, unfocused nurturing of the people around him helped things along.

Eventually, Terrace’s experiment comes to an unexpected conclusion and Nim is set adrift, sent to one depressing animal testing facility after another. This animal lived a remarkable life but he had no control over any of it, and the lack of agency he has in his own destiny makes “Project Nim” into a frequently heartbreaking film. There continues to be a debate over whether Nim truly learned to communicate or whether his ingrown skills as a brilliant beggar enabled him to ape the humans’ behavior without understanding it. But if we did teach him some small amount of cognition and expression, what we did to him next was an even greater tragedy.

With his experiment, Terrace draws one conclusion but Marsh, skillfully blending a healthy amount of archival footage with careful recreations and new interviews with most of the participants, may draw another with his film. Whether or not he could sign, regardless of how cute he was as a baby chimp, Nim was an animal. But just because he was an animal doesn’t mean he doesn’t have feelings, or deserve simple human decency. “Project Nim” makes it pretty clear that he does, and that Nim spent years crushed beneath the weight of disappointment and abandonment before an unlikely savior appeared to give him back the joy of companionship and friendship. The forgiveness Nim displayed after that is something we humans could aspire to.

“Project Nim” opens Friday in limited release. If you see it, tell us what you think in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter!

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.

Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.


Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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