Project Nim

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.
Genre: Documentary
Director(s): James Marsh
Production: Roadside Attractions
  Nominated for 1 BAFTA Film Award. Another 15 wins & 28 nominations.
Rotten Tomatoes:
93 min

A chimpanzee infant

left with his mother is a thing, a lump.

Taken away, he acquires

human psychological test performances

which are well-nigh unbelievable.

Nim was born

at the primate centre in Oklahoma

and I went out there to get him.

I had never been near

that many chimpanzees.

It was frightening, intimidating,

and I knew Dr Lemmon and his wife

were watching me

to see what kind of a mother would I be.

Carolyn, Nim's mother,

was sitting right there holding Nim,

and she knew what was going

to happen better than I did.

She had had six of her previous babies

removed, apparently, in the same way.

When the time came

to take Nim from his mother,

she instantly took on this drama,

this feeling of

something about to happen.

And Dr Lemmon shot her

with a tranquilising gun

And then said,

"Quick, we have to get him

before she falls over and falls on him. "

She was trying to protect him

and cradle him.

So, he raced in and got Nim

and handed Nim to me

and said, "Go back. "

You know, go back in the other space.

He was very dense.

Unlike a human baby that has fat,

he was dense and hard.

He didn't struggle.

He didn't try to get away.

He just screamed.

As much as he may be screaming

and protesting, he's also clinging.

He was attaching for dear life.

Wouldn't it be exciting

to communicate with a chimp

and find out what it was thinking?

If they could be taught to articulate

what they were thinking about,

this would be an incredible expansion

of human communication,

and possibly give us some insight

into how language, in fact, did evolve.

And that's essentially

why I started Project Nim.

I don't know what

was in his mind, but he just called.

He was asking me to bring

an infant chimpanzee into my home,

raise this infant as if he were a child,

and see if he acquired language

as a function of being part of a family.

Stephanie was

a former student of mine.

She had a large family of her own

children and her husband's children,

was exceedingly empathic and warm.

A chimp could not have a better mother.

I know nothing

about chimpanzees,

and I never actually

sat down to study them

as one could have.

As I should have, perhaps.

But my appetite and my drive

to have that intimate a relationship

with an animal was...

Nothing would have stopped that.

The fact that we could share language

with an animal

seemed like a very radical possibility

at that time.

It had been known for some time

that chimps aren't able to make

the sounds of human language.

Do this, Viki.

So why not teach them sign language?

The real breakthrough would be

if, like human children, a chimpanzee

could create grammatical sentences.

So, without much preparation

and without really asking permission

of my children, my husband,

I said, "Fine, I can do it.

"I even have the funds to do it with.

We don't need to worry about money. "

And so it was launched.

The experiment was launched.

When Nim came to New York,

he was barely two weeks old.

The idea was that he would be treated,

in every way, like a human infant.

I had recently moved to

a brownstone on the Upper West Side

with my three children

and with my husband,

who had four children, Wer Lafarge.

Wer was a poet and a writer.

He redefined himself, became what,

at that time, was called a rich hippie.

A new husband, new family, new house,

and I brought Nim into

that rather turbulent situation.

It just happened.

There was no family discussion about,

"Should we? Shouldn't we?"

It was just, "Oh, we're having a chimp. "

We're going to teach it sign language.

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Elizabeth Hess

Elizabeth Hess (born 17 July 1953 in Ontario, Canada) is a Canadian/American actor, playwright, director and arts educator. On TV, she is best known for playing the mother Janet Darling on the long-running American sitcom Clarissa Explains It All. She has also appeared on several episodes of Law & Order. Her acting resume also includes work on-and off-Broadway, regional theater, TV, independent films and award-winning solo works that have traveled the globe. She played Renee in the Tony Award winning production of M. Butterfly. She received her training from The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) and studied privately with acting coach Harold Guskin. She has taught acting principally at New York University's (NYU) Tisch School of the Arts, Fordham University and at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center/National Theater Institute. more…

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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    "Project Nim" STANDS4 LLC, 2021. Web. 28 Jul 2021. <>.

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