MRR Movie Review: Project Nim

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A 2011 documentary that tells the story of Nim, a chimpanzee who was raised and nurtured like a human child as part of a landmark experiment during the 1970's. Directed by James Marsh.
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Movie Review: "Project Nim"

-- Rating: PG-13 (Some strong language, drug content, thematic elements, and disturbing images)
Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 12, 2011
Directed by: James Marsh
Genre: Documentary/ History

"Project Nim" is a powerful British documentary of a chimpanzee who was taken from his mother at birth and raised by a family living in the Upper West Side during the 1970s. The chimpanzee was raised by the family as part of a research project that was set up to determine whether primates raised from birth by humans could develop an understanding and use of American Sign Language. The chimpanzee at the center of the research project was named Nim Chimpsky, and he was passed between three different teachers. In the documentary, the seriousness of the research is questioned because two of the teachers involved in the project were ex-lovers or current lovers of the project leader. The film was directed by James Marsh.

Some people have described the entire experiment as callous, but many of them go on to excuse the callousness as a project of the times. After all, it was the 1970s-a period of ignorance in which scientists could not be held accountable for unintended consequences.

The project leader was Herb Terrace, a professor at Columbia University. He named the chimp after a celebrated linguist at MIT, Noam Chomsky. Terrace did not have the time or patience to raise the primate on his own, so he passed it on to Stephanie LaFarge, a student. LaFarge took Nim to her household in Upper West Side where she lived with her children and her husband.

Nim did learn some words, but it can be argued that he was raised in a very unusual environment and that he could have fared better in an improved living place. The entire experience was very chaotic; the professor was sleeping with his student, and the chimp was allowed to indulge in vices that he should never have been exposed to. For example, it is clearly shown that the chimp smoked pot more than once. This, and other actions in the household, effectively ruled out (or at best minimized) the scientific accomplishments expected.

On realizing how futile his experiment was, the professor transferred Nim to a college house in the Bronx. Here, the primate was taken care of by professional laboratory assistants. However, the professor was having relations with these lab assistants too.

Over the years, film producers have managed (successfully or otherwise) to create numerous movies in which animals are the central characters. Most of these movies have featured primates. Examples of such movies include "The Wizard of Oz," "King Kong," "28 Days Later," and "Jaws."

While most of these movies feature the animal protagonists as wreaking mischievous and often deadly havoc on human beings, "Project Nim" is different. It does not just present the chimp as a cute animal with funny antics; instead, it is laid back enough to portray the human personalities of those who came in contact with the animal.

The human characters in the film, particularly those in the Upper West Side, had very strange personalities. Some of them were delusional, others were ignorant and naïve, while some of them were just plain scary. For example, Stephanie, who was the first human to act as a mother for the chimp, confessed to breastfeeding the animal. In fact, the family came to believe that the chimp was their own human child.

Professor Terrace easily comes out as a villain in the film. He is the originator of the careless experiment, and when he is shown speaking, he comes off as a manipulator of people. In fact, he doesn't even make an attempt to excuse his actions; though it can be argued that the origin of the mistakes of the experiment does not lie with him. It is also disheartening to know that the characters all fail to see the true nature of the primate.

In a sense, this gripping documentary is also an expose on the abuse of the chimpanzee. The experiment was extremely controversial and raised a lot of ethical questions. All the same, it gave insightful research into the behaviors of primates, especially group bonding. The professor appeared on the cover of the "New York Magazine," and the results of the experiment were published in "Science." In the documentary, Nim comes off in a better light that his human family members. Although the human characters come off as aggressive and selfish, just as one would expect from a primate, they occasionally display intelligence and even compassion in their interaction with themselves and the chimp.

Rating: 3 out of 5