Thursday, 16 June 2011

Project Nim

The title of this documentary from Man on Wire and Winconsin Death Trip director James Marsh refers to a five-year project into whether a chimpanzee could be taught to use sign language to communicate with humans.

Nim Chimpsky – the name is a pun on Noam Chomsky, whose ideas on language acquisition underlay the project, which began in 1973 – was the chimp, taken away from his mother at age two weeks and raised by a succession of human parents.

The director of the project was a Columbia University psychology professor, Herb Terrace. He however took a largely hands off approach, leaving the day to day work of rearing and educating Nim to a succession of research assistants, predominantly attractive young women, many of whom he had relationships with.

The first of Nim's parents was Stephanie LaFarge, a wealthy hippie type with a large family of her own. Lafarge treated Nim much like her human children, with considerable indulgence and little discipline, including letting him smoke marijuana and drink alcohol. Terrace soon decided that a more rigorous, disciplined and scientific approach was needed and transferred Nim over to the first of a number of students.

After five years the results were inconclusive. Terrace believed that all Nim was doing when he used sign language to say something like “give Nim banana” was effectively begging, whereas some of Nim's more hands-on teachers appear to believe that there was more to it than this.

Marsh uses a mixture of rich archive material, dramatic reconstructions and interviews with those involved in the project and with Nim. He tells his story in strictly chronological order, going from Nim's birth to his death in 2000. As such, a fair bit of the running time is actually devoted to Nim's post-project life, the research having had to end by the point he was fully grown and it became too dangerous to continue working; we're told that an adult male chimpanzee weighing 150 pounds is as strong as five or six men, while a number of the researchers bear scars from where Nim bit them.

By turns funny, sad, disturbing and thought-provoking, Project Nim's only weak point is a sometimes overly intrusive and insistent musical accompaniment.

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