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Project Nim (2011)

Documentary Rated PG-13

A documentary about a chimpanzee, in which the chimp is the only one to behave humanely.

Director James Marsh was wise enough to know that it isn’t the story of Nim that is most compelling here, even if he was a chimp raised as a human child in the 1970s as part of a strange language experiment. What’s more fascinating is the collection of bizarre, deluded people who surrounded the poor creature.

Consider Stephanie LaFarge, the woman who agrees to take the newborn Nim into her home to live among her seven kids, dog and husband. She seems to decide this on a whim, which is an omen of the undisciplined conditions to come. Most disturbing is her response when asked how she felt about the sexual gestures Nim began to direct her way. It wasn’t really troubling to her, she responds, because he was a preteen (the animal aspect doesn’t even seem to register).

Nim was put in the home of LaFarge by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace, who had once had a sexual relationship with her (as he does later with another assistant on the Nim project). At once clueless and Machiavellian, Terrace seems driven by the media coverage that the experiment provides more than any actual scientific progress. Indeed, when Nim’s story gets too grim near the end, Terrace disavows all his findings regarding Nim’s language development, a gesture that effectively distances himself from the entire debacle.

And it is a debacle, one that sends Nim from one home to another and then from a research facility to worse. Like an orphan out of Dickens, Nim is a sorrowful figure buffeted by the winds of the greedy, selfish and more powerful (and when you’re a chimp in the hands of humans, that’s just about everyone). Nim’s story is enraging, and one that provides real-world fuel for the science-fiction speculation of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (released within months of this doc, as a matter of fact).

That Marsh was able to gather LaFarge, Terrace and a host of other players years later to recount their parts in this saga is astounding, especially considering that there are so many different perspectives being offered. Some, like Terrace, see it as nothing more than a well-meaning but ineffectual experiment. Others, like LaFarge, can only discuss it in narcissistic terms, as a tiny blip in their own, much more important story.

And then there are those – some of Nim’s trainers, a research facility technician who formed a lifelong bond with the chimp – who recognize the story as the true tragedy it is. “We did a huge disservice to that soul,” one of Nim’s former teachers says, through tears. “Shame on us.”