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Tenet of the Apes

Project Nim (2011)

Susan Kuklin/Roadside Attractions

The fascinatingly bizarre life of a chimpanzee delectably named Nim Chimpsky forms the basis of James Marsh's latest documentary feature, "Project Nim." Punningly named after father of linguistics, Noam Chomsky, Nim was so called as he was to be the subject of a pioneering experiment into ape language capabilities.

It's 1973. Nim was born in a primate research center in Oklahoma; but at just a few days old he's taken from his mother and handed over to Stephanie LaFarge — a graduate psychology student with a burgeoning family of her own — with the aim of teaching Nim sign language.

Being the '70s, science was largely foregone for experimentation and Dr. LaFarge brought up Nim as one of her own, suckling and nurturing him just like a human child but neglecting to indulge in much actual science.

Mr. Marsh makes it fairly evident that the Lafarge family has little concept or understanding of what it has taken on, or indeed why. Further confusing matters is Columbia University psychology professor Herb Terrace, the de facto head of the study who spent as much time fraternizing with his young project assistants as he did in directing matters.

Lacking structure and order, the project drifted and little actual scientific progress was made. But with effective free reign, Nim flourished and developed an empathic and sensitive character. That said, he's also tempestuous, naughty and cheeky, and displayed hints of manipulation and aggression.

Mr. Marsh cleverly interweaves archive project footage (and some very convincing recreations) and talking-head interviews with the plethora of characters that Nim came into contact with as the experiment evolved, emphasizing the tangibility of the relationships Nim formed.

Seeking a breakthrough, Dr. Terrace discarded Dr. Lafarge — whose quip "words are the enemy" is particularly telling — in favor of Laura-Ann Petitto, a move that leads to a rapid improvement in Nim's language (he eventually learned 125 signs) and the attention of the global media that came with it.

Yet, just as Nim's language emerged, so too did his animal instincts. Displaying aggression and discovering sexuality, Nim reminded his carers that no matter how much they humanize him, he remained 100 percent animal.

To remind as such, Mr. Marsh recreates a bloody attack on a poodle and a detailed retelling of a brutal assault on helper Renee Falitz, incidents that conveniently allow Dr. Terrace to pull the plug on the project, citing scientific exhaustion.

Mr. Marsh subsequently charts the dehumanizing effect that Nim's return to the research center in Oklahoma had on him. Effectively bought up as a human by humans, Nim was abandoned amongst chimps, an alien and evidently terrifying proposition.

Mr. Marsh's aim of course is to evoke sympathy with Nim by highlighting humanity's lack of humanity. Dr. Terrace bears the brunt, coming across as a distinctly unlikeable self-publicist, who one minute exploited Nim for a photo opportunity, only to debunk Nim's linguistic talent the next.

Pot-smoking carer Bob Ingersoll was the antithesis of Dr. Terrace, sharing spliffs with Nim and bringing fun back into his life. It's particularly poignant then when Nim, eventually finding himself confined to a cage at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas (via a medical-testing facility), was rescued from a depressing life of solitude by Mr. Ingersoll, who delivered Nim some much-needed companionship to share his retirement with.

Ultimately Nim Chimpsky's tale is one tinged with hope, abandonment, adventure and solemnity, but it's also an indictment of the human tendency to form transient relationships with each other. It's a well-crafted insight into an age of experimentation and discovery and an affirmation of the humanistic importance of social interaction, a trait we share with our chimpanzee cousins. Most importantly, though, "Project Nim" is a timely reminder that the relationships and bonds we form along the way are the most significant and lasting things we do.


Opens on July 7 in New York and on Aug. 12 in Britain.

Directed by James Marsh; based on the book “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human” by Elizabeth Hess; director of photography, Michael Simmonds; edited by Jinx Godfrey; music by Dickon Hinchliffe; produced by Simon Chinn; released by Roadside Attractions/HBO Documentary Films (United States) and Icon (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.


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