By Peggy Nelson
Project Nim – 2011 – dir. James Marsh
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” Or, do we? In the documentary Project Nim, director James Marsh reexamines the well-publicized attempt by Professor Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University, to test whether we can talk to the animals. Nim Chimpsky, his name a play on the linguist Noam Chomsky, would be taken into a human home and raised as one of the family, exposed to all human forms of communication, verbal and nonverbal, while being taught sign language. The LaFarge family was a hippie-bookish blend of kids, dogs and the usual controlled chaos of domesticity. The mother was an ex-student of the professor, as well as an ex-student-affair. No one in the family knew sign language. Mature chimps are aggressive and not shy of biting; an adult male chimp can weigh 150 pounds and be over 5 feet in length. But baby chimps are cute! And it was the seventies. What could possibly go wrong?
The chronology is well presented, with contemporary footage interspersed with interviews from all the main players, who tell their own sides of the story. Including Nim. Nim communicates to us clearly in every frame he is in. Always with body language and vocalizations, yes, but very often he communicates with sign language, the bridge between him and those who would use or understand him. Because Nim did learn sign language, in fact, like Washoe before him, he acquired a significant vocabulary. But that, it turns out, was not enough to answer the question; can we talk to the animals? The answer is yes, to some of them, to some extent. But what is that extent? Did Nim use sign language to say what he was thinking? Or did he, in the revised opinion of the original researcher, simply memorize what sequence of gestures would get him what he wanted: food, toys, companionship?
Despite advocates of dolphins, dogs and horses, chimps are our best bet for interspecies communication. Sharing approximately 96% of our DNA, they also share opposable thumbs, a social, tool-using, hierarchical society, and an adolescence that allows for further brain development. However, their brains are significantly smaller than ours, their adolescence relatively compressed, and it is not clear our cousins are simply a bit behind us on the evolutionary path, rather than on a nearby, but divergent, path of their own.
Nim’s story begins with the type of well-meaning violence we expect to foreshadow a horrific conclusion (in science fiction). In 1973, Terrace and Stephanie LaFarge visit the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma. Nim’s mother is shot with a tranquilizer gun while breast-feeding and LaFarge is pushed in to snatch the baby, in an operation that feels more robbery gone wrong than research experiment. Nim is brought home to New York, played with, breast-fed!, and filmed.
A new student, Laura-Ann Petitto, appears on the scene, enthusiastic about the project and the professor. She designs and implements a course of study and a practice of notation and recording, extracting actual data, and significant progress from Nim. And significant attention from the professor. She is 18.
Nim is then removed from the family home, another furtive, traumatic separation, and relocated with several student researchers to Delafield, a Columbia-owned mansion in Riverdale just north of New York City. The extensive grounds provide space for Nim to grow and experiment, and the extensive building can house the growing number of student assistants. Nim’s progress, in terms of vocabulary acquired, continues to arc skywards.
One thing the viewer notices about chimps is how physical they are, especially when young. The young literally hang on their mothers’ fur, and Nim is no different. He is all over the researchers all the time, wrestling and playing and climbing and snuggling. One realizes that it may be difficult, if not impossible, to maintain critical distance in an experiment of this kind.
But Nim is growing, reaching his mature strength and size. Toilet training is attempted, as reapplying his diapers is becoming unfeasible. The combination of his teeth and size, as well as his maturing aggressive tendencies, is a crucial turning point in the experiment. In fact, it is the official end of the experiment. Terrace decides to call it off and transfer Nim back to The Institute in Oklahoma where he was born, and where he will be with his own kind. Nim has never really been with his own kind. A third brutal separation is enforced. The Institute has cages, and bars.
But the Institute also has sympathetic researchers, and Nim does begin to socialize with them, as well as with some other chimps. And there are extensive grounds where Nim can range and explore. Being social, Nim develops strong relationships in his new location, especially with Bob Ingersoll, who becomes his closest friend and champion.
But the Institute, run by the University of Oklahoma, suffers a funding cut. Many of the chimps, including Nim, are sent to LEMSIP, a medical research facility run by NYU.
The story does not end there. There is a court case (at which Nim was scheduled to be called as a witness), there were other keepers and other animals, there was a mate, there was a problematic reunion, and there was a well-deserved reunion. Nim’s language skills were declared a Skinneresque breakthrough by Terrace, and then reinterpreted and recanted years later. Nim died in 2000 of a heart attack. He was 26.
One’s sympathies ebb and flow widely over the course of the film, as good and bad resist easy assignment, and every silver lining reveals its touch of grey. Even Nim is the nexus of changing sympathies. Over the course of his life Nim grows into a character as complex and fascinating as anyone who ever deserved a biopic.
Nim was not human, and did not become so. But as this documentary shows, he is no less worthy of our empathy, interest and care. His life in the wild would not have been easy; his life with us was in many ways less easy still. But we can say of Nim, that here was life, love, and the pursuit of happiness, unspooling into a truly mesmerizing and cinematic story.