'Project Nim' Presents No Ordinary Chimp

by Cynthia Fuchs

8 July 2011

Project Nim doesn't try to reconcile its different understandings of Nim -- as an experiment, a child, a projection of various selves, and a complex, independent being. Instead, it shows how they shape and are shaped by the people who believe them.
cover art

Project Nim

Director: James Marsh
Cast: Herbert Terrace, Stephanie LaFarge, Jenny Lee, Laura-Ann Petitto, Joyce Butler, Bill Tynan, Renee Falitz, Bob Ingersoll, James Mahoney

(Roadside Attractions and HBO Documentary Films)
US theatrical: 8 Jul 2010 (Limited release)
UK theatrical: 12 Aug 2010 (General release)

Of course, we don’t experiment on humans, so we don’t have an experimental answer. But there are a couple of natural experiments—which have just happened—which seem to indicate that’s exactly what occurs. There’s one fairly recent case, and then one from years ago.
Noam Chomsky

I hadn’t fully understood Nim’s state of mind. You see glimpses of it in some of the footage. I hadn’t fully understood how much we messed with him.
James Marsh

“Wouldn’t it be exciting to communicate with a chimp and learn what it was thinking?” The question posed by Professor Herb Terrace of Columbia University is an enduring one. It’s echoed in the suggestion (above) made by filmmaker James Marsh, who interviews Terrace in his documentary Project Nim, that you might see signs of “Nim’s state of mind” in images. The difference between their approaches indicates their circumstances: the first is born of “scientific research” circa 1973, the other an artist’s reflection four decades later. But it also points to a broader cultural shift, a changing sense of responsibility, by humans, for others—others of various sorts.

Exposing this shift is the broad project of Project Nim. Not unlike Marsh’s Man on Wire, the new documentary uses an extraordinary story—before, Philippe Petit’s walk across a cable between the Twin Towers, now, the attempt to teach Nim sign language—to reveal other stories, about human ambition and failure, insight and arrogance, regret and ignorance.

Drawn from Elizabeth Hess’s book Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human, Project Nim begins, Stephanie agrees to raise the infant chimpanzee Nim, as the subject of an experiment conducted by her former lover and teacher Terrace. She brought the animal into her Upper West Side brownstone to live with her husband Wer (a poet), as well as their children. As Stephanie tells it, her relationship with Nim began when she saw removed from his own mother, Caroline, housed at the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma.

The film offers one of its several reenactments here, the screen filtered green to indicate the mothers’ shared horror—or more accurately, the horror Stephanie describes and feels for Caroline. As Nim was placed in her arms, she says, “He didn’t struggle, he didn’t try to get away, he just screamed.” He also started clinging to her, she recalls, “attaching himself for dear life.”

Stephanie explains her own evolving attachment once the chimp arrived in New York. While Herb says he trusted that “the chimp could not have a better mother” than Stephanie, the film notes the holes in the plan upfront: no one involved knew much about chimps (“I knew nothing about chimpanzees,” says Stephanie, “and I never sat down to study them as one could have, as I should have perhaps”) or ASL (“Nobody in the house really was fluent in sign language,” says Stephanie’s daughter Jenny Lee, 10 years old when Nim arrived and recently an exhibit designer for the Bronx Zoo whose work includes the Congo Gorilla Forest). Stephanie and Jenny recall embracing the adventure of having Nim in the house, and not incidentally, appreciating his defiance of Wer and soon enough, Herb.

Nim’s behavior may been at least partly predictable (he was a male competing for females), but the film focuses on the humans’ responses—and their thinking now about what happened then. Repeatedly, Nim’s human associates reveal themselves as they recall him. Stephanie, who breastfed the chimpanzee for “a couple of months,” admits, “I wasn’t prepared at all for the wild animal in him, and the drive.” When he “discovers” her naked body, she says, “There was a sensuality, but Nim was a preteen.” And Laura-Ann Petitto, a student brought in to teach Nim sign language, observes that as much as she loved her time with him, “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that could kill you.” 

The film doesn’t try to reconcile these different understandings of Nim—as an experiment, a child, a projection of various selves, and a complex, independent being. Instead, it shows how they shape and are shaped by the people who believe them. As Nim is moved from one context to another—from Oklahoma to the LaFarges’ home to the Delafield Estate in Riverdale NY (owned by Columbia), and then back to the Institute for Primate Studies—the film tracks the many ways he affects his handlers. “I had a relationship with a chimpanzee and I had conversations with another species,” says psychologist Joyce Butler, then writing her thesis on Nim (and falling in love with her work partner, Bill Tynan).

For a time, the experiment attracts media attention, as well as public approbation. This cuts a few ways. As Nim grows larger and seems increasingly self-assured, people around him adjust, but not always effectively. The teachers at Delafield remember their own hierarchy, as Herb is at once too present (starting a brief affair with one of them) and too absent (he doesn’t monitor or plan for the subject’s changes). When Nim bites through one teacher’s cheek (“He just crunched my face,” says Renee Falitz, as the lens is obscured by spurts of blood), Herb worries “that she would sue me or this would become public knowledge over how dangerous the project had become.” And so he makes a decision—without consulting everyone else affected—to send Nim back to Oklahoma. Joyce and Bill were horrified by what they saw, the cages, the cattle prods, and the chains. “I strongly believe that we made a commitment to him and we failed,” she says, “We did a huge disservice to that soul and shame on us.”

And still, the tragedy grows worse. When money runs out for the Institute in 1982, director Dr. William Lemmon agrees to send several chimps to New York’s Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates (LEMSIP), at the time conducting invasive biomedical research. Even as the workers here were instructed to interact with their subjects—including using sign language with Nim—the footage here is as grim as any in the film, showing chimps laid out on tables, injected with needles as they appear to grimace.

In these and another images, the film asks you to consider how Nim feels, or maybe how his behaviors—cuddling and hugging, playing, screaming—might imply how he feels. Repeatedly, Project Nim invokes the premise of the experiment and observes its lack of forethought and compassion, its overwhelming cruelty. It also reveals how such mistakes might have happened, the ways people deluded themselves. Of these, Stephanie is now the most remarkably self-reflective. Her experience with Nim changed her, she says. “He was bringing something out in me, a freedom to defy expectation and authority. For her, that authority was bound up in language, signs of social order and efforts to communicate. “Here I was,” she recalls somewhat ruefully, “married to a poet and working with a linguist. Words became the enemy.”

The film works around words in ways that films can, as images alternately support, contradict, and complicate what people say. Even as individuals articulate their desires to care for Nim or convey their relations with him, it also provides images of Nim himself, in still photos, contact sheets, Super-8 footage, and even magazine spreads. These images invite your own efforts to understand, to believe what you see, to translate what you can. They also remind you that your capacity is limited.

Project Nim


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