Daily News Egypt

THE REEL ESTATE: Of human bondage: James March's 'Project Nim' - Daily News Egypt

Advertising Area

Advertising Area

THE REEL ESTATE: Of human bondage: James March’s ‘Project Nim’

In 1973, a ground-breaking experiment in animal language acquisition was set up by Columbia professor, Herbert Terrace, to examine whether apes can communicate with humans using sign language. The subject of the experiment was a new-born baby chimpanzee named by the researchers Nim Chimpsky, who was taken away from his mother and placed in the …


In 1973, a ground-breaking experiment in animal language acquisition was set up by Columbia professor, Herbert Terrace, to examine whether apes can communicate with humans using sign language. The subject of the experiment was a new-born baby chimpanzee named by the researchers Nim Chimpsky, who was taken away from his mother and placed in the custody of a human family.

Nim’s tragic journey from being the most famous chimpanzee in America to entrapment after suffering years of physical torture, degradation and abandonment is the subject of James March’s taxing, thought-provoking new documentary “Project Nim,” one of the highlights of the stellar documentary selection of the fourth European Film Panorama, which kicks off on Nov. 23.

A story of a chimpanzee’s tragic fate might not have seemed for some to be a worthy successor for March’s highly acclaimed, Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008), a beautiful, fanciful memoir of French tightrope walker Philippe Petit. But just like the unusual subject of March’s previous outing proved to be an ideal vehicle for his meditations on art, relationships and the transient nature of life, “Project Nim” gradually unfurls into a stark testament of human cruelty, selfishness and infinite ignorance.

The story begins shortly after Nim’s birth in an Oklahoma lab. The infant chimpanzee is whisked off to New York where he would spend the early years of his life as a surrogate child to upper-middle class psychology student Stephanie LaFarge.

Nim’s early years with the ‘progressive,’ hippie, new-age LaFarge were the most blissful. Nim perfectly fit in with LaFarge’s extended family, who treated him as one of their own. LaFarge’s husband was the only thorn in Nim’s side. The two never got along and Nim, showing early signs of exceptional intelligence, was adamant on exercising his dominance.

Nim’s peculiar relationship with LaFarge — who casually admits to having breastfed him — acts as a reflection of the loose, permissive ‘anything goes’ climate of 70s’ America; a place with a hazy, distinctive ethical code that feels foreign now.

Two years later, Nim grew stronger, more playful and more aggressive, continuously causing mayhem in the house. He also wasn’t learning anything from LaFarge whose role as a mother vanquished her role as a researcher.

Terrace, for that reason, decided to relocate him to the Columbia-owned Dalefield estate in Riverdale. There, he was adopted by another surrogate mother, psychology student and former Terrace lover Laura-Ann Petitto. His tenure at the more disciplined estate proved fruitful; by the end of his time there, Nim had learned approximately 125 sign languages, a reasonable result for the experiment that, nonetheless, was somewhat below Terrace’s expectations.

In 1977, Terrace decided to terminate the project, declaring it a failure. He deduced that Nim was not establishing any real communication with his instructors; he was simply nodding or mimicking their gestures to get what he wanted. Terrace’s inferences were not conclusive, questioned by a number of researchers who worked in the project.

Nim was moved to the Institute for Primate Studies in Norman, Oklahoma where he, for the first time in his life, was locked in a cage with other chimps. By 1981, the research funding began to dry up and Nim was sold to an animal-testing center for tuberculosis studies. More misfortune befell Nim, forsaken by the men and women who made him.

March relies on interviews conducted with the various personnel involved with the project, intercepting them with footage of the experiment in diverse stages. Some of this footage is recreated by actors and is seamlessly interwoven with the original footage. Nim’s story is told chronologically; the classical narrative perfectly fits a story that, at times, feels like a combination of Franz Kafka’s “Report to an Academy” and Charles Dickens’s “David Copperfield.” But “Nim” proves to be more tragic than both.

The director gives the space for each participant to tell his own side of the story, but few of their testaments can be taken as facts. Nim’s fate, in other words, was determined by conjectures that, even had it exceeded Terrace’s expectations, could’ve never been deemed definite.

What March abstains from mentioning is that Nim’s name was a twist on Noam Chomsky, the influential MIT linguist who theorized about the uniqueness of language to humans, a model Terrace clearly planned to disprove but eventually failed. This small but crucial piece of information is a fundamental component of the dramatic design of the film.

Like “Man on Wire,” “Nim’s” primary themes take time to gradually reveal themselves. What ultimately emerges is a dark tale about hubris; a vain, tall venture to remove an animal from his natural habitat and transform him into a human; neglectful of his unalterable nature and needs.

What Terrace ultimately created was something akin to Frankenstein’s monster: a tortured creature too primitive to be taken as human and too evolved to fully adapt to animal life.

Even in their testaments, characters like Terrace show a trying self-obsession, directing the attention to their own thoughts, emotions, personalities and relationships.

Nim has been loved by humans, but most who entered his life treated him as an object of fascination; a curious subject of another experiment. Apart from Bob Ingersoll, the scientist who remained by Nim’s side until his death in 2000, none came to his help in the horrendous later stages of his life.

Every time Nim got attached to a human, he quickly found himself separated. He was betrayed by uncompassionate, thoughtless humans. The word ‘humane,’ in this story, is rendered hollow and meaningless. Nim, the alleged mindless ape, shows more devotion, more affection, than any of his human caretakers.

Like the alien from Walter Tevis’ novel “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” Nim, in March’s account, is an innocent foreign guide discerning human foibles; an outsider shaped and destroyed by men’s control addiction.

Advertising Area

https://dailyfeed.dailynewsegypt.com/2011/11/17/the-reel-estate-of-human-bondage-james-marchs-project-nim/
Breaking News

No current breaking news

Receive our daily newsletter
Subscribe