Project Nim

Project Nim

Nim Chimpsky, as seen in PROJECT NIM. Photo credit: Harry Benson.

Project Nim (2011)

Opened: 07/08/2011 Limited

Music Box Thea...07/08/2011 - 07/21/201114 days
Angelika/NYC07/08/2011 - 07/21/201114 days
Laemmle's Moni...07/15/2011 - 07/28/201114 days
Laemmle's Town...07/15/2011 - 07/28/201114 days
Laemmle's Play...07/15/2011 - 07/28/201114 days
Arclight/Holly...07/15/2011 - 07/21/20117 days
Village East07/22/2011 - 08/09/201119 days
Angelika/NYC08/12/2011 - 08/18/20117 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

Websites: Home, Facebook

Genre: Documentary

Rated: PG-13 for some strong language, drug content, thematic elements and disturbing images.

Short Synopsis

From the Oscar-winning team behind MAN ON WIRE comes the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who in the 1970s became the focus of a landmark experiment which aimed to show that an ape could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child.

Following Nim's extraordinary journey through human society, and the enduring impact he makes on the people he meets along the way, the film is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature -- and indeed our own -- is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling.

Long Synopsis

November 1973: A baby chimpanzee is born in a cage at a primate research center in Oklahoma. A few days later, his mother is knocked down by a tranquilizer dart, her screaming baby seized from her and placed into the waiting arms of his new human "mother," a graduate student of psychology with three children of her own.

Thus begins "Project Nim," arguably the most radical experiment of its kind, which aimed to show that a chimpanzee could learn to communicate with language if raised and nurtured like a human child. Under the auspices of a psychology professor at Columbia University, the chimp would be taught the sign language of the deaf and it was hoped he would soon acquire enough words and grammar to tell us what he was thinking and feeling. If successful, the consequences would be profound, forever breaking down the barrier between man and his closest animal relative and fundamentally redefining what it is to be human.

Sucking on his pacifier, baby Nim gazes into his new mother's eyes just as her own babies had, and the bond between them is immediate. He is clothed and taken to his human family's large house on the Upper West side of Manhattan to begin his new life.

Within a few months, he is confidently communicating his desires in sign language, all the while wrecking the house and seemingly intent on wrecking the human relationships within it. Cunning, mischievous and increasingly strong, Nim outgrows his first family and is then adopted by a succession of young female students who live with him in the palatial surroundings of Delafield estate in Riverdale, a large mansion then owned by Columbia University.

Nim's animal nature continues to emerge strongly and, though often affectionate and playful, he can't help but attack any human he perceives as weak. Bites become commonplace, and at the age of five, with a vocabulary of over 120 words, Nim's spell in human society, with all the privileges that involves, is prematurely curtailed. The experiment is abandoned and Nim is taken back to the primate research center in Oklahoma to learn, the hard way, how to live amongst his own kind. With his communication skills intact, Nim also makes lifelong friends with some of the human staff and even gets to drink the odd beer and smoke the occasional joint with them. But the center is running out of funds and, within a few years of his arrival, Nim is quietly sold into medical research and to his fate in a small and isolated cage in a lab in upstate New York.

News of his predicament soon filters through to several members of his human "family" who then set about trying to free him with the help of significant press interest and a maverick lawyer. The outcome is not what anyone involved expected. Nim is bought by a high-profile animal rights activist who, in a flourish of self-publicity, takes him to his animal sanctuary in Texas. But, with no chimps or signing humans for companionship there, Nim finds himself more isolated and lonely than ever. It's not long before Nim's human advocates must come to his rescue again.

Combining the testimony of all the key participants, newly discovered archival film and dramatic imagery, this is the picaresque story of one chimpanzee's extraordinary journey through human society and the enduring impact he makes on the human characters he meets along the way.

PROJECT NIM is an unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human. What we learn about his true nature -- and indeed our own -- is comic, revealing and profoundly unsettling.

Director's Statement

PROJECT NIM is an unusual proposition for a film. We've tried to apply some of the principles and techniques of a traditional film biography to the life story of animal. In the film, we follow an individual chimpanzee through infancy and adolescence to adulthood, all the while witnessing both his emerging behavior and its impact on the humans who lived around him. There are many intriguing behavioral overlaps between humans and chimpanzees explored in the film but it's the differences between the species that really shape Nim's life with us and determine his unhappy fate.

As infant Nim grows up, much of his behavior seems familiar, often surprisingly and amusingly so. He laughs, he cries, he craves attention and affection; he is a thrill seeker and a hedonist with a penchant for illegal drugs. He has an extraordinary memory and never forgets anyone he meets. He can be empathetic, affectionate and mischievous.

But from very early on, his own unique nature also asserts itself. His first "mother," Stephanie LaFarge, is quite shocked by "the wild animal in him" and this continues to emerge powerfully as he grows. If you lack confidence in his presence, look at him the wrong way, or otherwise diss him, he will attack and hurt you. Having made his point, he'll probably apologize and try to make it up to you.

The paradox and heartbreak for the humans around Nim is that he can scratch and bite people whom he seems genuinely to like. The heartbreak for Nim is that he cannot be any other way and, as he gets stronger, this will guarantee his virtual imprisonment. As the research veterinarian, James Mahoney, later observes in the film: "once you put them in a cage, it's all downhill from then on..." In the film, we get to know an individual chimpanzee whose baffled reaction to his increasing confinement can stand for the many, many thousands of chimpanzees, equally individual and distinct in character, who find themselves under our control in the same or worse situations.

It's important to recognize that Nim's life was never natural in any of its circumstances. He was always under our control - and captivity is a very unnatural environment for any animal, let alone one who was treated like a human being for the first five years of his life.

During those early years, Nim only interacted with humans and had absolutely no contact with his own species. Whilst the specific objective of the scientific study was to raise Nim like a human baby in order to inculcate language, the sterile manner in which this was conducted poses a big question about the respective influences of nature and nurture on a sentient, intelligent creature - and the debate plays out in Nim's life in a revelatory fashion.

So the story of Nim can't help but bump into some profound questions. The language experiment was itself a radical idea -- its higher objective was to discover what is going on inside a chimp's mind and how he sees the world. And if a chimp could learn language, what would that mean for our understanding of human language itself and its place in the evolutionary process?

Nim does learn an extensive repertoire of signs. He also learns table manners and how to use the toilet -- but in each instance, he uses what he learns for his own ends and quite often to exploit and outwit those who have taught him these skills. In dismissing Nim's language abilities as begging, Professor Herb Terrace is disappointed that Nim only uses signs to get what he wants. Given his powerless situation in the human world, who can blame him for that? Notwithstanding the dedicated scientific study of Nim, in the course of the film we often discover that Nim studies and understands us better than we understand him.

And how many of the characteristics that we recognize in Nim reflect part of our own genetic endowment? Our murderous aggression, our social hierarchies, our need for hedonistic diversion and sensation - are these hard-wired in our species as well? The humans in the film are consciously holding up a mirror to Nim in order to understand him but we must also ponder the mirror he offers to us in return. Hence the film's interest in the purely human behavior that Nim exposed in his friends, companions and oppressors.

I hope the film carries these questions and ideas lightly by offering a narrative account of Nim's life, focused on what he did and what was done to him. For better or worse, the film is not overly concerned with abstract ideas or indeed the scientific issues that frame the initial language experiment. The testimony of the scientists in the film is given no more weight than those others who became Nim's friend and observed him close up for long periods of time.

If there's a hero in the story beyond its chimp protagonist, it might be Bob Ingersoll the potsmoking Grateful Dead fan whom the scientists disregarded. Bob didn't need signs to communicate with Nim and didn't really care about the language debate at all. Bob never forsook Nim and once they re-connected after many years apart, he trusts him enough to casually stick his hand into Nim's mouth as they played. Nim just bites down on the hand with calculated gentleness when he is perfectly capable of biting it clean off. As Bob recalls, Nim's favorite sign wasn't a begging sign after all, it was the sign he invented and had always used the most with us: "play" and it meant "let's play together."

After I finished my work, I was still vexed about the propriety of the final statement we hear in the film which posits the idea that chimps have a capacity, and indeed an instinct, for forgiveness. I didn't want to insult Nim with another misleading human projection after so many others had negatively impacted his life. But I realized that the film had already discovered many examples of Nim's forgiving nature and the person offering the statement, a research vet who by his own admission had caused much suffering and pain to chimpanzees in the name of science, seems well qualified to know. At this point in the story, he's also the most in need of -- and deserving -- of the animal's grace.

---James Marsh, January 2011

Interview Subjects

HERBERT TERRACE is the Columbia University behavioural psychologist who originated "Project Nim" in 1973 as a groundbreaking research study of animal language acquisition. Professor Terrace still has an office at Columbia University, where he is director of the Primate Cognition Lab, and now focuses on the evolution of intelligence with specific emphasis on cognitive processes that do not require language.

STEPHANIE LAFARGE is Prof. Terrace's former psychology student who became Nim's first surrogate "mother" when he was only two weeks old. Stephanie LaFarge is currently senior director of counselling services at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). She has also counselled drug addicts, worked with terminally ill children, and spent ten years as a sex therapist in New York.

JENNY LEE is Stephanie LaFarge's daughter and was ten years old when Nim came to live with her large family in their busy house on New York's Upper West Side. Jenny Lee is now a landscape architect who specializes in zoo environments. She currently works for the Wildlife Conservation Society, based at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

LAURA-ANN PETITTO was a psychology undergraduate who took over responsibility for Nim after Stephanie LaFarge. She became the Project Co-Ordinator and "Head Teacher" of Project Nim (supervising and training all members), lived with Nim at Delafield, and was Nim's second surrogate "mother." Dr. Petitto is presently a Cognitive Neuroscientist and Professor at the University of Toronto widely known for three decades of discoveries about language processing in the human brain, the Bilingual brain, the Reading Brain, the structure, grammar, and neural organization of American Sign Language, and for discovering the very brain structures that make possible the beginning of language in our species. She is the recipient of over 25 international prizes and awards for her scientific discoveries, including a 1998 Guggenheim Award in Neuroscience, and, in 2009, she was appointed lifetime Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

JOYCE BUTLER initially came to Delafield to write her undergraduate thesis on "Project Nim." She took over as the project co-ordinator at Delafield after Laura-Ann Petitto left, becoming Nim's third surrogate "mother" until Project Nim was finally abandoned. Joyce Butler completed her psychology doctorate and also has an associate's degree as a sign language interpreter. She is currently director of curriculum and instruction for the South Hadley Public Schools in Massachusetts.

BILL TYNAN joined Project Nim along with a close friend, Carol Stewart, who was appointed as "Head Teacher". Tynan joined to finish college using independent research as a credit course. Intrigued by the complexity of the Project and engaged by Nim's personality and potential, Bill Tynan stayed through to the end. He is currently a business analyst for Country Curtains, a mail order/retail firm in Lee, Massachusetts.

RENEE FALITZ is a professional interpreter for the deaf who moved into Delafield as the American Sign Language expert in residence. Renee Falitz spent fifteen years as an interpreter for the deaf and then returned to graduate school. She works as a speech/language pathologist in the Miami- Dade school system.

BOB INGERSOLL is the psychology graduate who was working at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma when he met and befriended Nim. Ingersoll remains a passionate advocate for the welfare of primates in captivity and is currently vice president of Mindy's Memory, a sanctuary in Newcastle, Oklahoma for recovering research monkeys.

Dr. JAMES MAHONEY is the veterinarian at New York University's LEMSIP research lab where he was responsible for the welfare of its research primates, including Nim. Mahoney is considered one of few experts in primate medicine and, after LEMSIP closed in 1995, traveled to sanctuaries and other facilities in Europe, Africa and the US to assist in the care of chimpanzees. Dr. Mahoney believes that behavioral research on animals is in the long run more inhumane than biomedical research.

About the Crew

JAMES MARSH (Director) James Marsh's most recent dramatic film, RED RIDING 1980, was broadcast on Channel 4 in March 2009. Starring Paddy Considine, the film is an adaptation of David Peace's novel of the same name and forms part of a trilogy of films, based on Peace's books, that was released theatrically in the US and Europe in 2010 as RED RIDING TRILOGY. The film has also been screened at a number of prestigious international film festivals, including Telluride, New York and AFI.

His most recent documentary, MAN ON WIRE, won 26 awards worldwide, including the 2009 Oscar for Best Documentary, a BAFTA for Best British Film, the Independent Spirit Award and BIFA award for Best Documentary, and Jury and Audience prizes at Sundance. The film is a partly dramatised re-telling of an outrageous plot by a group of French artists to rig a high wire between the Twin Towers for aerialist Philippe Petit to perform on in 1974. The film was released theatrically worldwide and was one of the top-grossing documentary films of the last five years.

Marsh's first dramatic feature, THE KING, was selected for entry at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. A tale of jealousy and revenge set in the American Bible belt, the film stars Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt. The film was co-written with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Milo Addica. Marsh's previous film, WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP, premiered at the Venice Film Festival and won many awards, including a BAFTA and RTS award for Best Documentary. Originally made for television, this dramatised documentary was theatrically released in the UK and the US, where it stayed on art house release for two years.

Born in Truro, James Marsh grew up in Cornwall and London. Since 1994, he has lived between London, New York and Copenhagen.

SIMON CHINN (Producer)

Simon Chinn conceived and produced MAN ON WIRE, directed by James Marsh, which went on to win over 20 international awards, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, the Sundance Jury and Audience Prizes, the Independent Spirit Award, and audience awards at the Edinburgh and Los Angeles Film Festivals. In 2009, Chinn also won the PGA award for Producer of the Year in documentary features. MAN ON WIRE was released in 2008 and performed particularly strongly in the US and in the UK, and has sold internationally in over 25 territories. The Observer named it one the best British films of the last 25 years and it became Rotten Tomatoes' best-reviewed film of all time.

In 2005, Chinn established his production company Red Box Films to produce MAN ON WIRE (he took inspiration from Philippe Petit, who kept his ideas for future projects, including his high wire walk between the twin towers, in a red box under his bed) and it currently has a slate of projects -- including feature documentaries, feature films and television dramas - at various stages of production and development. In 2008, Red Box Films formed a producing alliance with Passion Pictures to develop and collaborate on a range of feature documentaries - the first of which is PROJECT NIM, which Chinn conceived and produced.

Prior to founding Red Box Films, Chinn co-produced Peter Kosminsky's multi-BAFTA winning Channel 4 drama, THE GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR, and produced and co-wrote the BBC's featurelength dramatised documentary, SMALLPOX 2002. Other documentaries include: AMERICA BEYOND THE COLOUR LINE; CORRESPONDENT: THE PROMISED LAND; WAR IN EUROPE; INVADING IRAQ; SMITH, MUGABE AND THE UNION JACK; and THE REAL ALAN CLARK.


Jinx Godfrey has extensive experience editing documentary and narrative features, including James Marsh's highly acclaimed films: WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP (RTS Award Best Arts Documentary 2000); THE KING (Selection Un Certain Regard Cannes Film Festival 2005); the film adaptation of David Peace's novel, '1980' as RED RIDING 1980 for Channel 4/Film Four (Telluride, New York and AFI) and MAN ON WIRE, which has won 26 awards worldwide, including the Oscar for Best Documentary, a BAFTA for Best British Film, the Independent Spirit Award and BIFA Award for Best Documentary, as well as the Jury and Audience prizes at Sundance. The film was released theatrically worldwide and was one of the top-grossing documentary films of the last five years. More recently, Godfrey edited Otto Bathurst's film based on the life of Dame Margot Fonteyn, MARGOT, for Mammoth Screen Ltd/BBC. Commercial work includes collaborations with high-profile directors Spike Lee, Errol Morris, Tony Kaye and Mike Figgis. Godfrey is currently editing director David Hare's feature-length contemporary thriller PAGE EIGHT for BBC2/HeyDay Films.

MICHAEL SIMMONDS (Director of Photography)

Michael Simmonds earned his BFA in cinematography from New York's School of Visual Arts. He shot MARATHON and SOUND BARRIER for Amir Naderi, one of the most influential figures of Iranian cinema. Both films were highly praised for their visual style. Simmonds was nominated for a Cinematography Independent Spirit Award in 2007 for his work on Ramin Bahrani's MAN PUSH CART (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival). The film received worldwide theatrical distribution in 2006. Simmonds collaborated with Bahrani again for CHOP SHOP (Cannes Directors Fortnight, Toronto Film Festival 2007) and most recently on SOLO TRAINWRECK: MY LIFE AS AN IDIOT, starring Gretchen Mol and Sean William Scott, and released in 2009. Simmonds' documentary work includes collaborations with Christopher Quinn, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, and Margaret Brown's acclaimed feature documentary, THE ORDER OF MYTHS.

JOHN BATTSEK (Executive Producer)

John Battsek has produced a prolific run of celebrated documentary films over the last decade. Starting with the Oscar and Emmy Award-winning ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER in 2000, Passion Pictures has produced over twenty-five acclaimed documentaries, most of which have been theatrically released worldwide. At the 2007 Sundance Film Festival, Passion was responsible for two films in competition which yielded record-breaking distribution deals in advances: IN THE SHADOW OF THE MOON sold North American television rights to Discovery and North American theatrical and DVD to ThinkFilm; MY KID COULD PAINT THAT sold North American television to A&E IndieFilms and worldwide rights to Sony Pictures Classics. Passion premiered two feature docs in competition at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival: RESTREPO, which won the Grand Jury Prize and was pre-sold by Passion to National Geographic; and THE TILLMAN STORY, which was acquired by The Weinstein Company. Both films were released theatrically in the US in summer 2010 and have been shortlisted for the 2011 Academy Awards. More recently, Passion's STONES IN EXILE premiered at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, and FIRE IN BABYLON (recently nominated for a 2010 BIFA Best British Feature Documentary) premiered at the 2010 London Film Festival where it was acquired for UK theatrical and will be released in cinemas in May 2011.


Dickon Hinchliffe is a founding member of the British band Tindersticks. From 1993 to 2005, Tindersticks released six critically acclaimed studio albums, including two soundtrack albums on Island Records and Beggars Banquet. Hinchliffe began scoring films with the acclaimed French director Claire Denis when she approached Tindersticks to write the scores to her films NENETTE ET BONI and TROUBLE EVERY DAY. He then scored Ira Sachs' films FORTY SHADES OF BLUE (Grand Jury prize-winner at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival) and MARRIED LIFE. Further film scores followed for KEEPING MUM, the Golden Globe-nominated romantic drama LAST CHANCE HARVEY, directed by Joel Hopkins, and the New York-based COLD SOULS, directed by Sophie Barthes, which premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. Hinchliffe then wrote the soundtrack for James Marsh's screen adaptation of the second of the Red Riding trilogy of novels, the highly acclaimed RED RIDING 1980. Hinchliffe recently completed the music for 2010 Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winning WINTER'S BONE. The songs of Tindersticks and Hinchliffe's compositions have featured in a number of television series including THE SOPRANOS, THE BROTHERHOOD and THE SINS.


George Chignell is Head of Production for Passion Pictures where she works across all documentary output. Chignell produced Amy Hardie's film THE EDGE OF DREAMING for More4 (released theatrically December 2010, US DVD release 2010). More recently, she co-produced FIRE IN BABYLON which premiered at the London Film Festival 2010 and will be released theatrically May 2011, and STONES IN EXILE which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival 2010. Prior to joining Passion, Chignell was Head of Production at Firecracker Films for four years, overseeing their corporate and television production output.

MAUREEN A. RYAN (Co-Producer)

Maureen A. Ryan is a producer based in New York concentrating on feature films and documentaries. She co-produced of James Marsh's MAN ON WIRE, a documentary about Philippe Petit, the wirewalker who stunned the world when he walked between the World Trade Center towers in 1974. It won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary and the 2009 BAFTA Award for Best British Film. She is also a producer of the independent narrative film BOMBER which premiered at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival, has won numerous film festival awards and is currently distributed by Film Movement. Written, directed and produced by Paul Cotter (Estes Avenue, Last Hand Standing), it was shot in Brighton, UK and Bad Zwischenahn, Germany. Ryan produced the short film RED FLAG, written and directed by Sheila Curran Dennin. The film was honored as part of the Best of the Fest for Comedy at the 2009 Palm Springs International Shorts Fest and also won the 2009 Best Short Comedy award at the Woods Hole Film Festival. Ryan's other producer credits include THE GATES; GREY GARDENS: FROM EAST HAMPTON TO BROADWAY; THE TEAM; THE KING; TORTE BLUMA;, LAST HAND STANDING and WISCONSIN DEATH TRIP. Additional awards have included a Peabody award, three AICP awards, a Billboard award, a Freddie, a CMA award, an ACM award, 11 Addys and 5 Tellys. Ryan is on the full time faculty at Columbia University's Graduate Film Program.


Elizabeth Hess is a journalist who lives in New York City. She is the author of Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would be Human (Bantam Books; 2008) and Lost and Found: Dogs, Cats and Everyday Heroes at a Country Animal Shelter (Harcourt Brace; 1998). Hess began writing investigative articles on animals for the Village Voice, New York magazine, and the New York Observer. Her articles have also appeared in The Washington Post and the London Telegraph. She has also written extensively on art for Artforum, Art in America and Art News, among other publications. Hess is currently writing a social history of the American Pit Bull Terrier.