(No longer in theaters)
Jul 8, 2011
You get a bad feeling early in Project Nim, the brilliant, traumatizing documentary by James Marsh (Man on Wire). Nim was a chimpanzee who—I can’t bring myself to use “that”—in 1973 became a test subject for Columbia psychology professor Herbert Terrace. The prof speculated that if a chimp were raised like a child and taught sign language, a door would be opened into the animal mind, to chimp thoughts, emotions, even dreams. Given the nature of a chimp brain, Terrace’s ambitions seem a tad unrealistic, but the problem is not that he was wrong—it’s that when he was wrong he lost interest along with funding. Terrace returned Nim, who’d spent years romping around people’s houses and had learned 125 signs, to a cage in the lab where he’d been snatched from his mother. To the people involved, Nim was a science project, not a damaged soul.
“Project” is a verb, too, and the bitter humor and sadness of Project Nim come from hearing how humans projected like mad on the poor chimp. His first human “mother,” Stephanie LaFarge, breast-fed Nim, let him puff on a joint, and worried about language constraining his animal nature. (You want to slap your forehead.) Taken from LaFarge and her family, Nim spent his days with a nice, pretty student who inexplicably went to bed with Professor Terrace and then, explicably, decamped. Later on, Nim bit through the cheek of another gal and, amid the blood and gore, signed, “I’m sorry.” And that was before the cages, the horrific NYU lab, and the animal refuge funded by Cleveland Amory that turned out to be worst of all.
Marsh’s documentaries are inspired fusions of content and style, and here, the artistry intensifies the pain. The reenactments are so convincing it’s a shock to see actors’ names in the credits—not to mention names of animatronic designers! Project Nim is emotionally exhausting, and while it’s tempting to label Terrace the villain, no one is totally bad or good—even Nim’s best bud, the Deadhead Bob Ingersoll, smoked dope with him. Nim opened a door, all right, but to the human, not animal, mind. And we’re some crazy species.