Oscar-winning director James Marsh’s documentary Man On Wire was an exhilarating and surprisingly emotionally affecting film about one man’s insatiable desire to overcome the most unthinkable of obstacles. In documenting tightrope walker Philippe Petit’s wirewalk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974, Marsh used archival footage and clever recreations to map out the intricacies of how Petit assembled a team and orchestrated his stunning and storied accomplishment. Man On Wire won numerous documentary accolades because the film was nothing less than brilliant theater; a film which worked on every conceivable level as a comedy, action film, suspense/thriller, bittersweet romance, and a moving emotional human drama. Returning to the same time period, James Marsh has found another compelling and riveting story to tell – that of a chimpanzee named Nim and the scientists who earmarked him for a bold and innovative experiment.
The origins of Nim began with another project known as Project Washoe. Washoe was an expansion on failed experiments by researchers to have chimpanzees learn how to speak human language. When it was determined that chimpanzees lacked the ability to replicate human speech patterns, Washoe attempted to take a newborn chimpanzee and integrate that chimpanzee into everyday human life to, in turn, see if chimpanzees could be raised as human children. Project Washoe was largely a success, but others were envious of the accomplishments and felt that where Washoe learned approximately 350 signs, more could be accomplished to bridge the gap even further between human and chimpanzee interactions and relationships. Enter Herbert Terrace, a behavioral psychologist at Columbia University, who had a bit of the “anything you can do I can do better” mentality.
Terrace developed the Project as a means of proving more definitively that a chimpanzee can be raised as a human child and after a harrowing removal of Nim from his mother, Terrace selected Stephanie LeFarge, a young activist, to take in Nim and raise him with her family. LeFarge was an intriguing choice as she had previously been in a relationship with Terrace and her family consisted of her three children, a new husband, and his three children. Nim was integrated with LeFarge at approximately two weeks old and LeFarge adhered to a structureless and freewheeling parenting style. She breastfed Nim, took him everywhere with her, encouraged nakedness with Nim, and even shared a joint or two with the young chimpanzee. With LeFarge, Nim learned next to no sign language, was hit-or-miss with his potty training and was never weaned from a diaper. He formed an unrelenting bond with LeFarge and while he connected with her and her children, Nim exhibited increased aggression against LeFarge’s husband. Learning these details alarmed Terrace and despite her protests, Terrace removed Nim from LeFarge’s care and reintegrated him into a more conducive learning environment.
A graduate student named Laura-Ann Petitto then began to work with Nim and made significant progress with a schedule of structure and learning. Nim soon warmed to Petitto and her fellow researchers and Terrace was thrilled that the Project was back on track. As progress is made, Petitto is apparently unable to resist Herbert Terrace’s charms and they soon develop a relationship. As ill advised as that obviously is, Nim is caught in the middle and when tensions escalate on the research team, Nim becomes more aggressive – bashing one researcher’s head into the pavement and nearly maiming a woman for life. The Project has escalated completely out of control and Terrace is desperately looking to reverse course and fix what is clearly beginning to unravel around him.
And oh, there is so much more I could share. James Marsh is an extremely effective filmmaker who, similar to his work with Man On Wire, integrates archival footage, present-day interviews, and recreations to tell a fascinating and heartwrenching story. Marsh nails all the details with the acumen of a top notch investigator and most impressively, he assembles and places on camera all of the major players. To his credit, Marsh never belittles or passes judgment on any of these people and simply allows viewers to listen to each word, hang on every idea, and ponder for themselves just where and when this Project went wrong.
After 30-plus years since the Project was shuttered, but not before one last PR move in front of national television cameras no less, it is staggering to see such real and powerful emotions on display. James Marsh’s film is brilliantly plotted and simply astounding when one learns of the events which transpired during the multi-year Project. However, equally affecting is how everyone is still affected by this experience, not the least of which is Stephanie LeFarge, who is absolutely oblivious to the notion that anything she attempted or experienced with Nim would be viewed as the slightest bit untoward or inappropriate.
Project Nim is one of my favorite films of 2011 and has incredible power and resonance. This is a film that is important in examining the hubris of human beings, the ease in which some can embrace a “God Complex”, and the wanton disregard for responsibility in science, life, and simple logic. When Terrace simply informs an investigative journalist that the Project was a failure and disregards all of the money, time, and energy put in by numerous research assistants, you feel outrage. Nim deserved better and while he was used, manipulated, and discarded as nothing more than a child’s plaything, there is a beauty in the connections that Nim was eventually able to make while free from Herbert Terrace’s arrogant and short-sighted Project.
It was Henry Ford who said, “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.” I thought about this quote tirelessly when watching Project Nim play out before me. At its conclusion, I was left pondering yet another famous quotation – “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should…”