Real wild child
PROJECT NIM (M) ★★★★■
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