Posted: 07/19/2011


Project Nim


by Sam Flancher

Currently Playing at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, IL

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Project Nim begins with a sense of foreboding. A newborn chimp is wrenched from his mother’s protecting arms for matters of higher science. The mother resists and must be tranquilized in order to wrestle the child away.

After being taken away from his mother, the newborn chimp (aptly named ‘Nim Chimpsky’) is given to a woman named Stephanie LaFarge to be raised as any average human child would be raised. The goal – to eventually teach the chimp to communicate full, grammatical sentences in sign language. Testing the nature vs. nurture hypothesis, Project Nim was off and running.

The LaFarge household provided for a tumultuous emotional and scientific battleground. Stephanie and her daughter immediately fell in love with the little chimp, treating him as one of their own. Though never achieving meaningful sign language communication, the emotional connections achieved were just as great as any vocabulary. But, for all of this great and loving interaction, the LaFarge household became a toxic environment for chimp and family alike. A wholly unscientific approach was taken by the LaFarge family(no records were kept, the family knew very little sign language) and this forced the eventual dismissal of the LaFarges in the project.

Nim proceeded to move to a research estate involving a rotating cast of teachers and nurturers. As he grew bigger, he grew more dangerous. Many of the subjects interviewed displayed their scars from various bites and scratches (one notable woman had a large portion of her face bitten off). Many of these teachers took a liking to Nim, but all claimed he held much more power than anyone really realized. A series of dangerous injuries coupled with a lack of funds caused Nim’s eventual sale to a medical testing facility. It is here among the unnatural images of sedated chimpanzees strapped down with their blood being drawn that Project Nim achieves its highest poignancy. The attempt to control and perform tests on these animals leaves a disgusting trail of images and emotions in its wake.

Project Nim is more about the people involved than the science or the chimp himself. Nim quite obviously had an impact on people’s lives. Many of the interviewees describe him as “powerful,” and reflect that he could read the emotional dynamics of the room in an instant. The film explores the tenuous relationships of the humans with each other, the humans with Nim, and the humans with the experiment itself. Many seemed to have left the project embittered, injured, or emotionally exhausted.

Stylistically, Project Nim operates along the same lines as James Marsh’s 2008 effort, Man on Wire. Marsh weaves an engaging tale with tactful camerawork, thorough research, and an obvious passionate disposition for the subject at hand. Like Man on Wire, it contains reenactments that often come off as glib and trite. With such a wealth of archived footage, pictures, and audio from the project, reenacting the material feels like an unnecessary missed opportunity to display something less staged.

While the lofty goals of this scientific experiment were wrought with disaster, the smaller goals of this documentary (to relate the incredible story of the project) succeed in accomplishing something much larger. The attempt and eventual inability to control Nim ultimately stands as a harsh warning to humanity. Communication is achieved, but only through unspoken emotional bonds as opposed to the project’s goals of communicative sign language. Any amount of sign language used and scientific “progress” made is negated by Nim’s violent outbursts of animal rage. His bites, scratches, and lunges force us to take a step back and consider what we’re doing to the world around us.

Project Nim is a humbling experience for any person, reminding us that, no matter how much we attempt to control it, to morph it, and to mold it to fit our criteria, the natural world will always remain a resistant unknown.

Sam Flancher is a film student at Columbia College Chicago. He currently lives in Chicago and is a freelance writer and videographer.

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