Monday, February 13, 2012

Project Nim (2011)

What happens when a chimp is taken from captivity and then raised by humans? Can a chimp be taught to live like a human? Can a chimp learn to speak and communicate like a human through sign language? The bigger question is: what happens when a chimp is raised by humans, taught to live like and communicate like them, and then put back into captivity to live with other chimps?  Film maker James Marsh, also known for the Oscar-winning Man on Wire (2008) explores those issues in his latest documentary film, Project Nim.   The film is centered around a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky (a dig at famous linguist Noam Chomsky) who was born in captivity in Oklahoma in 1973. A few days after being born, Nim is given to Herbert Terrace, A Columbia research professor. Terrace then gives Nim to a student of his, Stephanie LaFarge.  As a science experiment under the direction of Terrace, Nim goes to live with Stephanie and her family, and they treat him as one of their own.   Nim is then bounced from one "foster" family after another, all under the direct supervision of Herbert Terrace. During the five years he is under Professor Terrace's supervision, Nim is taught to live and act like a human, and is taught to communicate through sign language. You can see clearly through archived footage that Nim thinks of himself as a human during his early years of life. Some of the "archived" footage is re-enacted for production sake, but that's another topic of discussion altogether...I'll let that one go.

Then...the inevitable happens. After five years, it is determined that Nim can no longer live amongst humans. He has already bitten one of his handlers, pretty severely (what did they expect from a wild animal?)  Nim is taken back to the Oklahoma refuge where he was born to live amongst the rest of the chimps in captivity. From this point in the story, Nim is bounced between living in captivity,being subjected to cruel and unusual medical research, and finally back into captivity again to live out the remainder of his life.
What's really bothersome about this film is that no one had any culpability in the things that happened to Nim in his life. No one, including and especially Professor Terrace really seemed to grasp the concept of the cruelty that Nim was subjected to. Stephanie LaFarge even admits that she had absolutely no clue what she was getting involved in when she took Nim into her home. The only person who really seemed to care and was genuinely concerned for the primate was a handler at the Oklahoma Refuge, by the name of Bob. He was the only one in Nim's life that wanted nothing from him, other than to be his friend and see that he was treated humanely.

I am sure that this film will ignite a fire under the heels of the folks over at  PETA, if it hasn't already. The film documents the cruel and inhumane things that were done to Nim, starting from birth when he was taken from his mother. When Nim was then taught to live like a human, he was basically stripped of all his natural wild instincts of living amongst other chimps. He was subjected to cruelty once more when he had to learn how to live back in captivity. The question of whether Nim actually learned to "communicate" or not through sign language is irrelevant in my book. However, from what is shown in the film, Nim does clearly learn how to communicate through signing. After attacking one of his handlers, Nim signs "I'm sorry." Was that a reaction that he was taught after negative behavior? or was he truly communicating that he felt sorry?

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