Real wild child

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Movies - LEIGH PAATSCH


Di­rec­tor: James Marsh ( Man on Wire) Star­ring: Herb Ter­race, Stephanie La­Farge, Bob Inger­soll, James Ma­honey

Two ( op­pos­able) thumbs-up PIT­TING na­ture against nur­ture in the name of sci­ence is fraught with dan­ger.

This is just one of many il­lu­mi­nat­ing in­sights to be gleaned from Project Nim, a bizarre, cap­ti­vat­ing and some­what sad new doc­u­men­tary. Nim Chimp­sky was a chim­panzee who be­came the sub­ject of an am­bi­tious – and flawed – so­cial ex­per­i­ment in the 1970s.

To test a the­ory it may be pos­si­ble for ‘‘ in­tel­li­gent’’ an­i­mals, such as chimps, to ac­quire and ap­ply the ba­sics of hu­man lan­guage, Nim was raised for the first five years of his life as ‘‘ one of us’’. Torn from his mother’s arms at two weeks of age, Nim was whisked away to an exclusive New York City town­house.

Rich, bo­hemian and self-ab­sorbed, the oc­cu­pants were hardly a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can fam­ily. And Nim was never go­ing to con­form to his hosts’ idea of a typ­i­cal Amer­i­can child.

Par­tic­u­larly af­ter be­ing breast-fed for six months by the mother of the house, a kooky ex-hip­pie who also gave her in­fant charge his first hits of mar­i­juana and al­co­hol. Poor Nim, you may be in­clined to think. Well, these were hal­cyon days com­pared with what was com­ing.

The ex­per­i­ment’s con­troller, shifty lin­guis­tics pro­fes­sor Her­bert Ter­race, wisely re­moved Nim af­ter fi­nally realising it was not an ap­pro­pri­ate environment. But, af­ter re­lo­cat­ing Nim to an idyl­lic farm – where the clever pri­mate made re­mark­able progress with his use of sign lan­guage – Ter­race con­tin­ued a pat­tern that would haunt Nim for the rest of his life.

A kindly fig­ure would be­come Nim’s con­stant com­pan­ion and then dis­ap­pear with­out ex­pla­na­tion. Re­peated aban­don­ment was too much. Nim be­gan hav­ing ter­ri­fy­ing fits of rage.

The fi­nal straw came when he bit a chunk out of a han­dler’s face. The grand ex­per­i­ment had de­scended into grand folly. Ter­race called it quits and Nim was aban­doned again – this time with life-threat­en­ing con­se­quences, af­ter be­ing dumped in an an­i­mal drug-test­ing fa­cil­ity.

Di­rec­tor James Marsh ( whose last film Man on Wire won the 2009 Best Doc­u­men­tary Os­car) shrewdly al­lows all who played a role in the short rise and pro­tracted fall of Nim to state their case. Some are re­gret­ful; oth­ers are still un­sure as to what hap­pened. But it’s the be­wil­dered and an­gry look on the face of Nim as an adult that re­ally says it all. project-nim. com Now show­ing State Cinema

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