Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Project Nim [2011]

MPAA (PG-13)  Roger Ebert (3 1/2 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert’s review

Project Nim (directed by James Marsh) is a documentary about the life of Nim (Nov 13, 1973 - Mar 10, 2000), a chimpanzee, who two weeks after being born at a Oklahoma primate research facility was taken from his chimpanzee mother to be raised by a  human family  living in an upscale home in Manhattan for the first year of his life.  Afterwards, Nim studied for four years as part of a Columbia University study directed by Dr. Herbert S. Terrace to determine if a chimpanzee living among human beings could acquire true human language skills.  Since chimpanzees can not make human sounds, Nim was taught signs from American Sign Language (ASL) instead.  The key purpose of the study was to test famed linguist Noam Chomsky’s thesis that only humans are wired for true language, consisting not just of words but also of grammar.  Since humans and chimps hold 98.7% of their DNA in common, it seemed reasonable to believe that a chimp raised among humans could learn to communicate in a human way.

During the 5 year study, Nim did learn some 120 signs, though Terrace remained unconvinced that Nim learned to use those signs to communicate in a truly human way.  Nim could make himself understood.  On the other hand, his sign constructions proved very short and repetitive and he would sign them until he got what he wanted.  Examples of some of Nim’s sign constructions reported in Terrace’s group’s research are given in the wikipedia article on Nim.

The documentary continued to follow Nim’s quite harrowing life after Terrace’s study was completed.  Nim was first quite abruptly returned to the Oklahoma research facility where he was born.  Then along with _all the other chimps_ at the facility Nim was sold to an upstate New York medical research lab for medical experiments.  Some of Nim’s human friends from both Oklahoma and Columbia University intervened and got Nim a lawyer.  Soon enough Nim was bought by a Texan animal shelter whose owners, while well meaning, were not the best equipped to deal with the needs of a, by then, rather traumatized, adult chimpanzee. (The animal shelter specialized in recovering horses and other four legged hoofed animals).  In the end after an ownership change at the Texas animal shelter and with advice of one of Nim’s human friends from the Oklahoma research facility, other chimps were brought to the Texan animal shelter to give Nim (and each other) company.  Nim died perhaps somewhat at peace of an apparent heart attack at the animal shelter at the age of 26. 

I found the documentary to be compelling in a number of ways:

First, my entire family has always loved both plants and animals.  My mother had a great green thumb and would talk to the plants as she watered them.  And the rest of us always just loved animals.  I’ve always wondered what animals are thinking.  (I was convinced that a neighorhood dog living near to where I was studying when I was going to USC, had a sense of humor and did things to piss-off the dogs of another neighboring house).  As such studies like the language acquisition study with Nim simply _fascinate_ me.  However, what would have fascinated me the most would have been to see if a chimp like Nim could articulate either/both self awareness (“I’m happy, I’m sad...”) and/or empathy (be able to ask “Are you happy, sad...?)  From bits that I was able to extract from the movie as well as from a recent interview by NPR’s Terri Gross for her show Fresh Air of several of the people who were part of Nim’s life and were featured in the documentary, Nim was able to sign “I’m angry” and “I’m sorry.”  I just wonder if he was able to articulate (via signing) other emotional states.

Second, to the documentary makers’ credit, they never lost sight of the fact that Nim was chimp, that is, _an animal_.  Yes, the study for which Nim _was being used for_ was to see if a chimpanzee like Nim could learn to communicate in a human way (using a human sign language).  However, the documentary makers freely included recollections of Nim’s human handlers and video clips of Nim behaving like an animal – knocking things down, biting people when he was upset, and progressively becoming far stronger than his human handlers and thus becoming increasingly dangerous to work with.  Nim's increasing strength and the increasing danger associated with working with him in close quarters was the main reason why Terrace ended the language acquisition study with him as Nim approached five years of age.  Indeed, one of Terrace's assistants had been quite seriously hurt by Nim.

Third, _also_ to the documentary makers’ credit, they allowed Nim’s human handlers to be themselves as well.  Let’s face it, in the 1970s the kind of people who would have been interested in working on studies such as this would have been skewed toward a “hippie like” lifestyle complete with the drugs (Yes, Nim came to request and smoke pot with his handlers at times) and sexual concerns that make the average Catholic blush.  Nim’s surrogate human mother during the first year of Nim’s life, for instance, had been a psychology student.  (Remember, again, that this study was conducted in the mid-1970s).  So _she_ was interested in such things Nim’s masturbatory behavior and so forth.  Honestly, it wouldn’t even occur to me to be interested in Nim's masturbatory behavior ;-).  But Nim was, indeed, _an animal_ studied in close quarters living among human beings in a human family.  So I suppose, someone trained _Freudian psychology_ could find this aspect of Nim’s life interesting.

All this is to say, that the documentary is very honest and treats both Nim and the people who worked with Nim in a very frank and similarly honest way.  This same frankness, however, would probably _not_ make this movie a particularly good candidate for a "good family film."

Finally, the second half of the documentary, which follows Nim’s life _after_ Terrace’s language acquisition study was completed, does present the _full horror_ (to the animals involved) of animal research.

Yet, even as the documenary presents the horror of primate medical experimentation to the documentary’s viewers (again, Nim along with the other chimpanzees of the Oklahoma facility were sold at one point to a New York medical research lab, where they were caged in really small cages and used to test emerging medications), the presentation does beg the question: Would it be better to conduct medical research on orphans in Ireland or Australia or on inmates in the United States or Guatemala?  (All these classes of _vulnerable people_ were used in the past for medical research).  So the documentary does ask us to take a hard look at medical research, period.  And it does ask us to insist that medical research be done _ethically_ and _humanely_ in _any case_. 

So who would I recommend this movie to?  I would recommend it to a college aged young adult and adult audience, though _not_ to kids or even teens (I would have rated the movie R rather than PG-13).  Some of the references and even video portrayals of Nim's violence I did find disturbing (and would think that most kids and many teens would find very problematic).  Still, I found the movie to be _very interesting_ precisely because it _doesn't_ present either Nim or his life in warm and fuzzy way.  The viewer was reminded repeated that Nim was _not a human being_ but a chimp, closely related to human beings perhaps, but certainly an animal nonetheless.  As such, the movie's presentation of the Nim's similarities and differences to us makes for truly a great _adult_ discussion piece.

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