3/31: Project Nim
Words are a fucking nightmare when it comes to closeness, often. … Words became the enemy. — Stephanie LaFarge
Project Nim tells the frustrating story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee taken from his mother as an infant and sent to live with a human family as an experiment in animal-language development. The idea behind the experiment, ostensibly, was to see if chimps could habituate to humans and learn our language; the result, unavoidably, was that Nim could, and yet, at the same time, he couldn't.
The frustration comes with the hindsight; with the benefit of 30-odd intervening years, it's clear that a monkey named after Noam Chomsky is going to have some issues, but you have to wonder how Stephanie LaFarge, Nim's first human "mother," or Herbert Terrace, the "scientist" in charge of the research, thought it was going to turn out at the time. (That's not entirely true. It's pretty clear that, among other things, Terrace "thought" it was going to turn into a barrel full of young, attractive, naïve research-assistant fish, and he thought right. LaFarge's decision to breast-feed Nim, meanwhile, is a logic you can follow; you just don't want to, and pray for someone to overrule her.) But there were no real research controls in place; the team of teachers and minders didn't remain consistent; and when Nim got unmanageable and the funding ran out, there was no Plan B for an animal who'd gotten used to living in a house, using a toilet, and eating grapes. Nim himself turned out to be what he was: a chimp. For that, he functionally got sent to primate jail.
Things bounced back for Nim in the last part of his life — as far back as they could, by that point. James Marsh directed another documentary I really enjoyed, Man on Wire, and he's here again very skilled at presenting hippie-ish attitudes as naïve and well-meaning, even sweetly likeable at times, that could present as smurfy or outright grating. Most of the people involved in Nim's care did seem to mean well, and it's easy to sniff in retrospect that Nim is an animal, so obviously he shouldn't blah blah blah; Marsh gets Nim's teachers and "family" to admit that themselves, and creates a compelling narrative about a no-win situation, instead of a dismissal of a group of ignorami. Terrace is an ass (and has protested his portrayal), but even he didn't exploit Nim, exactly. He just didn't think things through.
Project Nim is a gripping story, and its build is excellent. Marsh snagged an Oscar for Man on Wire, and his ability to bring the best out of already-interesting stories by skillfully mixing archival footage, interviews, and just enough font-y wordplay on interstitial screens is a big part of why. Nim is shortlisted for Best Doc, and got a good bit of press upon its release, so I'm pretty sure it'll be among the nominees. Recommended viewing regardless.
Tags: 31 Days 31 Films documentaries Herbert Terrace James Marsh movies Nim Chimpsky Oscars 2012 Death Race Project Nim shut up hippies Stephanie LaFarge