Project Nim

Time's Cover Chimp


15 July 2011| No Comments on Project Nim     by Sean Chavel


Emotional documentary that lets you see the advanced behavioral nature and intelligence of chimpanzees in a brand new light. With a generous abundance of 16mm animal in action footage interweaved with retrospective interviews, Project Nim recounts the lengthy experiment activated in 1973 which began with taking a newborn chimpanzee and placing him in a human urban environment to live with hippies. Nim was to learn human manners but more importantly sign language, which left a question of whether he could learn not just human words but the ability to build sentences. But sans a decent schooling structure, Nim was relocated to a rolling hills mansion, an opulent spread, under the care of new teachers and researchers. While that ideal habitat lasted extensively it became eventual that after abandonment of grant funding Nim would have to be moved again. As Nim is passed around like a hot potato from one set of “family” researchers to the next, the act of animal displacement becomes a sight of heartbreak.

I have rarely been as emotional during an animal documentary. Thirty years later, the researchers that worked and played with Nim are just as emotional in their reflections. Many of them never wanted to give up their role as caregiver, and it becomes apparent that they got jerked away from their dream project too. Yet a notion often overlooked was that Nim in nature was a wild animal. One teacher states, “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal that can kill you.” Nim’s biting outbursts became more common on men than upon women, given that he had a natural attachment to “mothers.”

What can’t be denied is the extraordinary learning grasped by Nim: Accumulating far more than a hundred words of the English dialect, using a human toilet, petting a kitty cat, kissing the tears away from humans, sharing food, smoked pot (really!), developing manipulation tactics to escape the “classroom,” and that last thing that can’t be mistaken which was love.

Generously paneled are ten former Nim acquaintances that participated in soundstage interviews, each one at a time coming in and fading out of the story. But it is probably Bob Ingersoll, a psychology graduate from the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma, who will touch you most. Bob appreciated Nim’s advanced intellect and his need for the right socialization. He stood as Nim’s activist and led an advocacy for the welfare of primates in captivity. The Columbia University professor Herb Terrace who launched the project and got Nim media press on TV and in Time Magazine, is a benevolent man but only middle ground when it came to sentimentality. You might find yourself wishing Herb was willing to fight for Earth’s most learned enriched primate.

But you have to wonder why the world didn’t fight harder for Nim’s well-being. It’s like the 1970’s cared, and that the ’80’s didn’t care, and then PETA in the ’90’s found ways to make people care again. You can’t jerk a chimpanzee around from one habitat to the next, one family to the next. You do that and you jerk around his emotions. James Marsh (“Man on Wire”) directed this film and he wants to show you that, yes, chimpanzees have very multi-faceted emotions.

93 Minutes. Rated PG-13.


Film Cousins: “Planet of the Apes” (1968); “Project X” (1987); “Man on Wire” (2008); “The Cove” (2009).

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Sean Chavel

About The Author / Sean Chavel

Sean Chavel is a Hollywood based author and movie reviewer. He is the Executive Director of, a new website that has adapted the movie review site genre by introducing moodbased and movie experience based reviews.


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