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Home » Culture and Criticism

3/31: Project Nim

Submitted by on December 3, 2011 – 3:37 PM10 Comments

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.




  • Lore says:

    The book that the documentary is based on or inspired by (NIM CHIMPSKY: THE CHIMP WHO WOULD BE HUMAN, by Elizabeth Hess) is also well worth reading. (Possibly superfluous after seeing the movie, I don’t know?)

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    The book is linked at the top of the entry, if anyone’s interested.

  • Blaise says:

    Just curious, I thought these were all from your Netflix queue? Because my Netflix is saying that it’s not available. Love your reviews so far!

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    Some of them are for clearing my Netflix queue; they may not all be from it. Others are from screeners, seen in the theater, etc. and so on.

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    This makes me think of the Peanuts cartoon where Linus has finally given up his blanket and Charlie Brown buys him another one, not knowing he’s kicked the habit. He feels so guilty that he goes to Lucy in her little psychiatrist booth and says “I thought I was doing the right thing.”

    Lucy says, “In all this world, the most trouble has been caused by people who ‘thought they were doing the right thing.’ Five cents please.”

    Humans. At least we keep trying, I guess.

  • Georgia says:

    This reminds me of a YA novel I read for work: Half Brother by Kenneth Oppel. It’s a fictional account of a family conducting a similar experiment with a chimp. The ending goes off the rails a bit, but it’s still worth a read.

  • Kitty says:

    I saw this at the Seattle International Film Festival in June. I remember hating it but none of the specifics why. Maybe I just hated Terrace and LaFarge.

  • Sharon says:

    I remember hearing an in-depth piece on this subject a while ago on NPR….

  • Jaques says:

    Herb Terrace is a media whore. He used poor Nim to promote his own notoriety and abandoned the poor creature the moment the camera’s lost interest. Asshole!

  • Steve says:

    Terrace was a user, taking advantage of his assistants and certainly, that poor chimp. This guy is no ethical scientist. Can’t believe he’s still allowed to teach. King f@cling asshole.

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