TRUE/FALSE FILM FESTIVAL 2011
By Don Simpson | March 28, 2011
Director: James Marsh
Project Nim commenced in 1973, when Columbia University psychology professor Herbert Terrace launched a study to determine if chimpanzees raised by human beings could learn to communicate with sign language. Nim Chimpsky (get it?) was taken from his mother, Carolyn (an 18-year old female), when he was two weeks old to be raised by human surrogate parents in an attempt to refute Noam Chomsky’s thesis that language is inherent only in humans because animals lack the “language acquisition device”.
Terrace chooses a former lover — Stephanie LaFarge — with little to no experience with chimps or sign language to raise Nim in her family’s Manhattan brownstone. LaFarge nurtures Nim as she would her very own offspring (she even breastfeeds him), raising him like a human baby/pet hybrid…and Nim matures into a possible romantic interest (yeah, you read that correctly) for LaFarge.
When Terrace becomes skeptical of LaFarge’s hippie-dippie parenting techniques, he whisks Nim away to a prim and proper 21-room mansion — the Delafield estate — in Riverdale where Nim is cared for by a series of teachers with various (and sometimes unrelated) skill sets. Several of the caretakers form deep and possibly dangerous bonds with Nim, who grows bigger, stronger, faster and sneakier by the day. Terrace’s next sexual conquest, Laura-Ann Petitto, becomes Nim’s second surrogate mother; and when Petitto leaves Project Nim, Joyce Butler steps in as Nim’s third mother-figure.
It is not much longer before Terrace finds himself in a position that he must pull the plug on Project Nim, fearing that Nim has grown too powerful and dangerous to control; so Nim ends up stuck in a cramped cage as a hepatitis test subject at New York University’s Laboratory of Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates. That is until Henry Herrmann, a Boston attorney, steps in and represents Nim in a court of law arguing that the usual standards for laboratory animals do not apply to Nim because of his unusual upbringing. Terrace probably never realized it but by raising Nim as a surrogate human (and arguably teaching him to communicate with humans), he may have opened people’s minds to the possibility that animals should have rights, including the right to legal protection from research.
Project Nim addresses the ethics of raising animals as humans and/or using them as research subjects; but director James Marsh, in this follow-up to his Oscar-winning Man on Wire, purposefully stops short of giving any hard-fast answers. Marsh is not here to talk science or ethics, he merely wants to provide the audience with an intriguing and beguiling story. (Which he does in spades!) Nonetheless, Project Nim is a life-changing experience that will certainly alter many viewers’ perspectives on animal rights as well as what qualifies as scientific research.
Terrace, for better or worse, is an incredibly intriguing character; as the predatory male leader of Project Nim, he repeatedly acts upon his animal urges rather than making intellectual decisions for the betterment of his research. In retrospect, we find Terrace to be utterly lacking in any resemblance of compassion or remorse for his decisions and actions.
Marsh’s Man on Wire nimbly alternated between dramatic recreations, interviews with subjects, and archival footage (photography and videos); Project Nim utilizes the exact same documentary technique, but the thoroughness and quality of the archival material from Nim’s incredibly well-documented life (Nim wears suits! Nim smokes pot! Nim humps a cat!) makes the strategy work more effectively than it did in Man on Wire. (Personally, I could have done without the sensationalized reenactments in both films.)
The candid nature of Marsh’s interview subjects — a startlingly near-complete array of the primary subjects of Nim’s life — also helps. Seated in an incredibly sterile environment, the interviewees’ shockingly confessional recollections are captured by Marsh’s unflinching (and non-judgemental) kino eye; then, a few beats after they stop talking, Marsh’s camera dollies sideways, as if moving on to the next caged specimen in the zoo.
I enjoyed Man on Wire, but Project Nim is a significantly more advanced documentary production. The pacing and structure of Project Nim are practically flawless, and Marsh’s propensity for sprinkling humor throughout this seemingly serious documentary is right on par with Errol Morris (The Fog of War, Fast, Cheap & Out of Control). I have a sneaky suspicion that the masses will go ape shit (sorry, I just had to!) for Project Nim and this will be a serious contender for the best documentary of 2011.