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Movie Review: ‘Project Nim’

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(This documentary traces the life of Nim the chimpanzee, raised by humans in New York City.)

(This documentary traces the life of Nim the chimpanzee, raised by humans in New York City.)

Wine_Bill--NEW Bill Wine
Bill Wine has been KYW Newsradio’s movie critic since 2001. You can...
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By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

If a chimp was raised by humans as a human, would he inevitably go ape?

That’s the central question posed by the absorbing Project Nim.  And the answer is that a chimp would at some point exhibit wild behavior dictated by his hard wiring — but, then, so would the humans handling him.

3 skirt1 Movie Review:  Project NimThat is, if he was literally “going ape,” then, metaphorically speaking, so were his human handlers.

In 1973, a wife brought a chimpanzee home to her husband and seven kids and proceeded to raise it in their Upper West Side brownstone in New York City along with, and as, one of her children — even breastfeeding him.

That’s the springboard for Project Nim, a compelling documentary about a controversial scientific research experiment in the nature-versus-nurture vein that traded in the rigors of the laboratory for what would come to resemble a ’70s hippie commune.

When he was just two weeks old, the chimp was taken from his mother at an Oklahoma primate preserve and sent to New York City for a Columbia University linguistics experiment.

Could a chimp raised among humans and taught to communicate with sign language (chimps don’t possess the physical capacity to talk) learn not just a vocabulary of over 100 words but grammatical structure as well?  Or was this just gussied-up anthropomorphic nonsense?

And more dramatically, would the humans be safe with this strong, wild animal and his powerful fangs in the house?

Would the excesses of the 1970s — like the sexual entanglements of Nim’s human nurturers — enter into the murky ethics of this seriously flawed simian experiment? And would Nim simply accept the parade of dysfunctional caretakers in his life, never seeing another chimp, or would he be traumatized — and get to use those words he had learned to articulate just that — by what seemed like serial abandonment?

The chimp’s name was Nim Chimpsky (a pun on Noam Chomsky, the linguist who professed that language was for humans only and whose theories this experiment was designed to challenge or disprove), and he would experience a roller coaster of a life dictated by the humans in his unique circumstance.

And despite all the animal behavior on display, it’s the human behavior that is perhaps most eye-opening, upsetting, and perversely fascinating: here’s a group of people who would appear to care very much for Nim but who are also more than willing to exploit him.

Documentarian James Marsh, director of the fascinating, Oscar-winning Man on Wire, engrosses us once again by mixing talking-head interviews, archival footage, and dramatic re-creations.  He gives his interviewees their say as they explain what they remember from their own viewpoint, and he covers the 27 years of Nim’s life, which ended in 2000.

But he pretty much lets us draw our own conclusions.  Which are? Well, we’re initially intrigued, eventually saddened, and ultimately disappointed by the shortsightedness and self-absorption of our own deeply flawed species, as represented here by the self-serving participants in this misguided experiment.

So we’ll raise 3 stars out of 4 for the unsettling chimp-experiment-gone-awry doc, Project Nim.  Because we can’t give Nim the last word, let’s turn to one of the humans involved with him:

“We did a huge disservice to him and his soul, and shame on us.”

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