A documentary about an ape sheds light on human nature

Project Nim

Directed by James Marsh

Opens Aug. 12 at the Charles Theatre

In the early 1970s,


Columbia University psychology professor Herbert Terrace launched a radical new study into language acquisition. He took a 2-week-old chimpanzee from its mother’s arms and deposited it into a freewheeling hippie household in Manhattan, where the chimp was breastfed by a human “mother” and treated as a member of the family. The project aimed to solve the nature/nurture question once and for all: Could a chimpanzee raised as a human learn to communicate what he was thinking and feeling?

Though Nim Chimpsky, as he was named, learned more than 100 words in sign language, the project did not result in any definitive answers about language acquisition. And in its aftermath, Nim—not human, yet not fully chimp either—was essentially abandoned.

Project Nim

, an unsettling new documentary by James Marsh, director of the equally brilliant

Man on Wire

, tells the story of Nim’s life during the experiment, and in the decades that followed. The film leaves the problem of nature/nurture to the side. Instead it raises other questions: about the ethics of dealing with an animal that can express complex emotions like contrition, about the barriers between our world and that of the chimpanzee, about science and hubris, about what constitutes a soul.

Because Nim was the subject of an experiment, his life—especially in the early years—is heavily documented in home movies and photographs. We see him stealing a badminton birdie during a family game, hugging his human companions, playing with a kitten, and, on more than one occasion, smoking a joint. (Certain aspects of the experiment were apparently not very rigorous.) But these mostly charming scenes are interrupted as Nim is taken from his original human family and resettled on an estate with a succession of researchers, for reasons scientific and otherwise. The all-too-human behavior of those in charge is in part to blame for the near-constant state of disruption in Nim’s life. Terrace, for instance, sleeps with more than one of the women he’s brought into the project, including his undergraduate research assistant. It’s not, to say the least, a stable home life.

And then Nim grows up, and like most grown male chimpanzees, becomes dangerous. By the time he is 5 years old, biting incidents are common, and sometimes brutal. Terrace decides to abort the project; Nim is abruptly torn from his human family and returned to the prison-like research facility where he was born. He has never met another chimpanzee, and doesn’t fare well with the other chimps. However, a pot-smoking Deadhead who works at the facility—Bob Ingersoll, the unlikely hero of the film—befriends him, taking him for walks and playing with him. (“I’d rather be with Nim than Jerry [Garcia],” he says in a present-day interview, “and for me that’s saying something.”) But within a few years, the center loses funding and the chimps, including Nim, are sold to a medical lab that uses them for research into vaccines for diseases like AIDS and Hepatitis B. Happily, Nim’s story doesn’t end there. But neither does it end entirely happily.

Based on Elizabeth Hess’ book

Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human

, the film in many ways takes the form of a traditional biography, using interviews with those who knew Nim best, archival footage and photos, and subtle re-enactments. (According to the credits, an animatronic chimpanzee was used in parts of the movie. You would never know it.) From the beginning, when Nim’s mother is shot with a tranquilizer dart, the documentary has you with your heart in your throat. But the style is mostly restrained—barring some odd re-enactments involving a ringing telephone and a barking German Shepherd, meant to evoke Nim’s childhood home—and the story is told primarily by those who lived it. The major figures in Nim’s life—including Nim’s human “mother” Stephanie LaFarge, Ingersoll, a vet who worked at the medical lab, the various research assistants, and Terrace himself—are all there to speak for themselves.

Nim died of a heart attack in 2000, at the age of 26. The story of his life is terribly sad, but our engagement with the film doesn’t end with grief. In watching it, we are forced to confront questions it’s easier not to think about, questions less about the nature of chimpanzees than about our conduct as human beings.