Documentary Review: Project Nim
My initial feeling upon leaving Project Nim was something akin to Werner Herzog’s closing monologue in Grizzly Man—I felt nothing for the animal. While others looked into Nim’s eyes and saw flickers of humanity, depth, tenderness, all I could see was its cold instinct. Every hug was punctuated by either a vicious bite or a beg for food. There was no instance of it sharing or displaying any concern for its companions unless it was for Nim’s own selfish benefit. The best that can be said for it is that the creature’s offenses can be excused because it is, after all, a wild animal.
Nim is Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee taken from his mother at birth (and the Oklahoma chimp farm where he was born) and made the subject of Herbert Terrace’s, Columbia professor of Primate Studies, experiment. Terrace wanted to see if a chimp raised as a human child and taught sign language could converse with other humans. Nim was placed in the care of Stephanie Lefrange, an affluent New York hippie and mother several times over. Stephanie gave Nim free run of her family’s upscale New York apartment, allowed such indulgences as alcohol, pot, and even Stephanie’s breast milk (“It was the seventies,” she insists) and soon entered into a power struggle with Stephanie’s husband. Given the chimp’s tendency to attack whenever it didn’t get its way, I can’t blame the husband for disliking the creature.
Terrace became dissatisfied with Stephanie’s lackadaisical approach to parenting and reluctance to teaching sign language, and Nim was again relocated, this time to one of the Columbia president’s off-campus estates and placed in the care of another graduate student, Laura-Ann Petitto. Under Laura’s tutelage, Nim’s vocabulary expanded to over 100 words, but, once again, the animal took over, and he became too violent to handle. Despite wide media coverage, including articles in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, the project fell through, and Nim was taken back to Oklahoma, sold to a research lab, purchased by a philanthropist, and changed multiple hands until finally dying in 2000, at the age of 26.
Director James Marsh (Man on Wire) is nothing if not innovative, and, for the first half, he presents not only a fascinating look into the life of Nim and his handlers, but also an encapsulation of the 1970s themselves.
Even though the story is set nearly 40 years in the past, many of the actual participants are still alive (including Terrace, Lefrange, Petitto, pot-smoking Deadhead Bob Ingersoll, veternarian and researcher Dr. James Mahoney, among others) to share their thoughts, experiences, and reflections. Altogether, they offer perspectives from every gender, class, and background, be it science or spirituality, youth or old age, man or woman. That Marsh was able to find a subject that encompassed and affected such a diversity of people is somewhat of a triumph in itself, and he does justice to each one by framing all of them against a dull-gray background. It’s a simple effect that allows the viewer to focus on their words, but even more so it levels the field and shows no favoritism toward any one viewpoint. Who are the heroes and who are the villains? Marsh leaves it up to the viewers to decide, reserving his own opinions, if any.
Most interesting of all, the interviewees reveal much more about themselves than Nim, who represents for all of them a kind of magic mirror in which each one sees what they want to see, be it a child to rear, a smoking buddy, a test subject, or, in the case of Terrace, a ticket to fame and a chance to meet pretty research assistants (emphasis on the first three letters…).
Marsh also includes a slew of reenactments interwoven with not only the interviews, but with archival footage. In both cases, the transitions are seamless—everything from the film grain to the actors used to represent the interviewees are utterly convincing, so much so that distinguishing between what is genuine and what is a recreation is largely a waste of time.
Yet, for all its strengths, I found Project Nim to be a disappointment. I say “I” because enjoyment of the film (at least the second half, which focuses less on the humans involved and more on Nim himself) hinges on whether you see Nim as a sympathetic character or simply as a wild animal reacting as you’d expect to its surroundings. As stated earlier, I’m in the latter group and thus found the later years of Nim less engaging and revelatory. The people in his life become fewer and their stories repetitive. The revelation that all the project accomplished was to create an exceptionally skilled beggar is unsurprising. The introduction of several chimp companions, uninteresting.
Once Nim goes back to Oklahoma, is sent to a research lab, then purchased by an animal lover (ostensibly he was buying the press), it feels rushed. For as long as Marsh lingers on the actual project, none of it feels dull, and yet right when he seems to take notice of the length, it starts feeling long. I could have gone without more Ingersoll, who, if the tale has any hero, would be it, and would have liked more of Mahoney, who could have been the villain but points out that as heartless as disease testing may be, it ultimately saved lives. That may be a personal preference, but here the focus is on Nim, whose actions are, again, no surprise.
In the end, the viewing experience is best left to the viewer’s estimation. That may read as tautological, but what I mean is that Project Nim, more than any other movie this year (with the exception of Tree of Life), will leave each viewer with a different opinion—and to offer a review that should apply to anyone seeing it is to defeat the point: Just like Marsh’s subjects, we see in Nim what we want to see.
Project Nim is rated PG-13. Directed by James Marsh. Starring Herbert Terrace, Stephanie Lefrange, Laura-Ann Petittio, Jenny Lee, Joyce Butler, Renee Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, Dr. James Mahoney, Bern Cohen, Reagan Leonard, and Bob Angelini.