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“Project Nim”: Sundance winner debuts Dec. 20 on HBO

Melissa Hayer Modified: April 24, 2013 at 1:28 pm •  Published: December 18, 2012
Professor Herbert Terrace, Nim Chimpsky. Photo: Susan Kuklin/Courtesy of HBO
Professor Herbert Terrace, Nim Chimpsky. Photo: Susan Kuklin/Courtesy of HBO

Professor Herbert Terrace and Nim Chimpsky. Photo: Susan Kuklin/Courtesy of HBO

 

The documentary “Project Nim” centers on the life of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee born at the Institute for Primate Studies at the University of Oklahoma in 1973, and how he is taken from his mother a few days after his birth and made the subject of an experiment entitled “Project Nim.”

The project, led by Columbia psychology professor Herb Terrace, is designed to show that a chimpanzee can learn to communicate with language if raised like a human

“Project Nim,” winner of the World Cinema Documentary Directing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, premieres at 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20 on HBO.

Nim is brought to New York City and lives with Stephanie LaFarge and her family, who work on teaching Nim to communicate with sign language, although they have no experience and minimal knowledge relating to chimpanzees.

Nim is pretty much given free rein to do as he pleases.

Although LaFarge, a former student of Terrace’s, has success teaching Nim sign language and bonds with the chimp, Nim’s time with her is completely unstructured.

This causes Terrace, who spends very little time with Nim  himself, to take Nim away from LaFarge, and the chimp’s journey continues with travels back and forth to Columbia with psychology student Laura Petitto before the pair is moved into a mansion owned by Columbia where sign language education continues.

As Nim grows bigger and stronger, he becomes aggressive and unpredictable as well as sweet and frolicsome.

This factor, along with a brief romance with Terrace, provokes Petitto to leave the project and Nim is then cared for by Bill Tynan, Joyce Butler and Renee Falitz.

After receiving a serious wound to the face from a bite by Nim, Falitz leaves.

Soon Nim is returned to the Institute for Primate Studies when Terrace decides to end the project.

Nim finds friends in IPS staffers Bob Ingersoll and Alyce Moore, but when the center is out of funds a few years later, he and the chimps there are sold to LEMSIP, a New York University research facility.

The chimpanzees become subjects of lab experiments and are kept in small cages.

Publicity about Nim’s situation prompts a campaign to get him away from LEMSIP, including a lawyer proposing that the chimp be given a day in court to testify on his own behalf using sign language.

New York University ultimately sells Nim to an animal rights activist, Cleveland Amory, who runs a ranch mostly inhabited by horses and other hooved animals.

Nim suffers without being around chimps or human friends, but when LEMSIP closes in 1995, two chimps are sent to the ranch, and Nim’s life improves. Ingersoll comes by for visits and adds to the enhancement for  Nim.

From the Academy Award-winning team behind “Man on Wire,” including director James Marsh, “Project Nim” contains moments that are astonishing, disturbing, touching, senseless, bizarre and heart-breaking, but is above all compelling.

– Melissa Hayer

mhayer@opubco.com

Follow me on Twitter: @MelissaHayer

Nim Chimpsky, Laura Ann Petitto. Photo: Susan Kuklin/Courtesy of HBO
Nim Chimpsky, Laura Ann Petitto. Photo: Susan Kuklin/Courtesy of HBO

Nim Chimpsky and Laura Ann Petitto. Photo: Susan Kuklin/Courtesy of HBO