In her early work with chimpanzees, Jane Goodall concluded that chimps represented all that is good about humanity. But as she continued her work, she witnessed an unbelievable amount of chimp-on-chimp violence. And she realized that chimps represented the bad aspects of humanity as well. They are, Goodall has stated many times, a lot more like us than we realize.
And that’s possibly why chimpanzees, and apes in general, fascinate us so much. Whether it’s the Planet of the Apes franchise, National Geographic-like TV specials, or even an episode of NBC’s Harry’s Law, we are fascinated with these animals and their human-like nature… as was behavioral psychologist Herbert Terrace of Columbia University in the 1970s.
It was Terrace’s brainchild to conduct an experiment to see if a chimpanzee could develop language and communicate with human beings by living with them, which becomes the focus of James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim. The chimp named Nim would be taken from his mother at two weeks old to live with Stephanie LaFarge, a former student and lover of Terrace’s, in her Upper West Side brownstone. This would only be the beginning of Nim’s unsettled, and at times disturbing, life. Terrace would disagree with LaFarge’s “raising” of Nim and would set up a more structured curriculum of sorts and hire the young (and beautiful) Columbia student Laura-Ann Petitto. And the transitions of living space and care-givers/teachers would continue. Marsh captures all of this drama from cradle to grave with ease and respect using a combination of studied filmed reenactments and classic 1970-era home movies.
The film calls to us to care deeply for Nim during what would be his turbulent childhood. We chuckle when he is playful with the humans and tricks them. We raise an eyebrow when we learn that Nim enjoys alcohol and the occasional joint. We are concerned by the outbursts of anger and comforted by the natural inclination to seek friendship.
Marsh brilliantly, yet simply, weaves the stories of the various humans in Nim’s life together to tell Nim’s story. He has a gift for interviewing people and capturing their emotions (or lack thereof). His storytelling is open-minded and open-ended, leaving enough space for viewers to come to their own conclusions. This is not an anti-anything film. This is Nim’s narrative, and that is Marsh’s only agenda here.
Terrace’s motives are at best questionable. In addition to having a sexual relationship with LaFarge, he engages in one with Laura as well. He abandons the research and sends Nim back to the Institute of Primate Studies (IPS) in Oklahoma, his original home. At one point in the unsettling narrative, Nim is sold with other chimps to a medical lab. He would be “rescued” by a Texas ranch owner who knew nothing about apes. Chimps are social animals, and Nim was left in a cage alone. Despite his efforts to help, Bob Ingersoll (who befriended Nim at the IPS) was denied visitation at the Ranch. Bob, a hippie through and through, built a relational bridge with Nim that leaves much to be marveled at. It is in between tears that Joyce Butler, one of Nim’s teachers, says, “We did a huge disservice to him and his soul, and shame on us.”
The film also says something about human nature. It offers a blending of self-interest, troubling egos, and complex emotions which leaves us wondering if we need violence to see the negative aspects of human nature. Laura would later observe that Nim was “most beautiful when he didn’t have the shackles of humanity imposed on him.”