Thursday, July 07, 2011

“Project Nim” – Movie Review



This week in my movie class, we saw director James Marsh’s “Project Nim”, a documentary about a scientist’s experiments in the 1970’s to teach sign language to a chimpanzee – but when his personal issues insinuate themselves into the experiments, the study becomes invalidated.  Marsh is an Academy Award winning director for his documentary “Man On Wire”, about Philippe Petit, the guy who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of The World Trade Center. 


Herb Terrace is a science professor at Columbia University in New York City. In the early 1970’s he got an idea that he believed would make him rich and famous: if he could teach a chimpanzee sign language, he could prove that they could communicate with humans, which would be a major scientific breakthrough in his field of study. Driven by his own blindingly egomaniacal ambition and arrogantly narcissistic lust for power and women, Terrace ruthlessly sets out to do whatever he felt was necessary to perform his experiments with the appearance of success and thus gain notoriety from the media as a result.

Starting with taking the newborn chimp from his mother at a primate research center in Oklahoma, he names the baby “Nim Chimpsky” after noted linguist Noam Chomsky. From there, the chimp is then whisked away to what will become a merry-go-round of research assistants who act as Nim’s caretakers or surrogate mothers – a number of whom wind up being seduced by Terrace at various points along the way. First, he engages a graduate psychology student who lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan; there, Nim lives in her apartment where the woman attempts to raise him as a human child but he winds up destroying her home in more ways than one. Nim is then transferred to a young undergraduate student who finds increasing success in teaching Nim a vocabulary through sign language.

As Nim gets passed along from one person to another, he grows increasingly frustrated – and as a maturing chimp, he also grows increasingly strong, taking out his rage on others by physically assaulting them. Eventually, Terrace terminates the study and declares it a failure, despite all of the media hype suggesting the contrary. He returns Nim to the research center, but by then, the center is running low on money because they are encountering difficulty getting funding. The center then sells Nim to a medical research facility that conducts drug experimentation on animals, but he is rescued and is eventually purchased by the famous owner of an animal preserve in Texas, where Nim becomes despondent and lonely because he is the only chimp there.


On the surface, this movie is about an experiment conducted by some bozo who tried to teach monkeys how to communicate with humans via the same sign language that deaf people use. What it’s really about, however, is so much more fascinating and infuriating, especially if you’re an animal lover. “Project Nim” is more about what happens when human folly unnecessarily ruins an animal’s life due to personal flaws such as selfishness and avarice; “Nim” is less about a scientific experiment gone awry than it is about how humans go awry in their life – and how their actions negatively impact on others, and in this case, a chimpanzee, too.

Although I found this documentary to be gripping and highly involving even if you’re not exactly a staunch supporter of PETA, I did have some misgivings about the way it was told, but not so much the story it was telling. For one thing, Marsh, the director, resorted to some obvious “faked” footage in order to tell his story; while the documentary is full of interviews, still photos and home movie footage, there were quite a number of scenes shot that were basically recreations or dramatizations of actual events that took place. Unfortunately, I feel this sometimes takes away from the credibility of the filmmaker and/or his film. Nevertheless, “Project Nim” is able to rise above this and remain a stunning example of the evil humans do both to each other and to animals.

Both before and after the screening, journalist Elizabeth Hess was interviewed; she was the author of the book, “Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human”, which inspired this documentary. She had some interesting observations about the movie, comparing it favorably to her book. Hess said that her original reason for wanting to write this book was that she was interested in doing a biography of an animal rather than a human being. As a consultant on the documentary, the author also mentioned that she’s seen the film a few times as she’s been involved in doing publicity; in the course of her travels, she has sat on panels that included Herb Terrace, whose presence is somewhat surprising since he has been made out to look like such a villain in the movie. Perhaps this reveals even more about his need for being the constant center of attention, even if it’s negative.




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