Directed By James Marsh
2011, Documentary, 93 mins., PG 13
By the 1970s geneticists had calculated that the DNA of human beings and chimpanzees was more than 98 percent identical. In the previous decade of the 1960s, noted psycholinguist Noam Chomsky challenged the prevailing “behavioral wisdom” by hypothesizing that the acquisition of language, defined as the ability to formulate sentences in an ordered way, was a trait uniquely encoded in humankind’s genetic mapping. Chomsky’s concept was that children were innately guided by virtue of their human heritage to learn sentence structure at an early age. It seemed only a matter of time and circumstance before these areas of study on the forefront of science coalesced.
In order to test Chomsky’s idea from a cross-species perspective, Dr. Herbert Terrace, a psychology professor at Columbia University, set out to investigate “scientifically” whether a chimpanzee separated at birth from its mother could live with humans and learn to communicate through the use of American Sign Language (ASL) with its human family. The chimp chosen for the project was given the name Nim Chimpsky. While Terrace’s work in the area of inter-species communication was not the first attempted by investigators, it garnered the most notice from popular media.
James Marsh, following up his excellent Man On Wire with the new documentary Project Nim, now playing nationwide, grippingly focuses on the impact of this experiment through the use of talking-head interviews with principal participants, archival footage, home movies, film of recent developments, and occasional brief re-enactments of actual events. He takes the viewer on a journey through the initially stirring exploration into the capabilities of a non-human sentient being, and beyond to the less than stellar outcome for the experiment and, sadly, for Nim Chimpsky.
The film begins at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, where Nim is forcibly taken as an infant from his mother after she is shot with a tranquilizer dart. The newborn, suddenly motherless ape is immediately whisked away and moved across country to a tawny brownstone in Manhattan occupied by Stephanie LaFarge, her husband Lars, and their blended family of seven children. Ms. LaFarge had previously served as a graduate assistant for Terrace while at Columbia and had impressed him with her intuitive intelligence; the two had also been lovers for a time.
That Stephanie knew no ASL was apparently not a consideration, nor did it occur to her to consult with her husband and children about the advisability of introducing a new “infant” into their midst. Nim is brought into a joyous and chaotic environment where anarchy reigns. The “parental” supervision, such as it was, for the newest member of the family was decidedly laissez faire. “It was the seventies, after all,” recalls one of LaFarge’s now adult daughters.
Terrace, who had been only an occasional presence, jarringly re-enters the picture and decides that the lack of scientific rigor is untenable. After two years with the LaFarge family, Nim is removed to a more structured learning environment – not the chimp’s last move.
As the story unspools, one is struck by the frequent collisions that occur between those in authority and those who wish to exert more control over the study. Is the enterprise an example of true science on the verge of an astounding breakthrough, or a calamitous off-the-rails circus starring humans and a rock star primate?
Almost from the outset, the smell of tainted data lodges itself into the proceedings. A viewer wonders how any verifiable conclusions could be drawn about Nim’s language abilities. Another aroma that certainly wafts about in the footage as Nim is put through his paces comes from the joints that the twenty-something experimenters share with their young primate protégé, who loves getting high on pot or a nice cold one fresh from the refrigerator.
As Nim grows from an adorable and loving child-like rascal into a physically imposing, intelligent, manipulative, and at times dangerously aggressive male animal, difficult choices regarding his care are made. Much of what ensues from such choices is heartbreaking for filmgoers to watch.
Marsh asks his audience to consider difficult questions regarding the use of animals for the benefit of humans by showing real and disturbingly vivid scenes of medical experiments performed on chimpanzees in horrifying prison-like environments. How far should science go in service of our species? How much experimentation is necessary? Who profits the most from these experiments? Are alternative methods available that can further the development of medicines and vaccines to treat human disease and ease our suffering?
Many viewers will leave the theater with both a heavy heart and a gnawing sense of ambivalence, as there are no pat answers provided in this exceptional piece of filmmaking.