Project Nim

Project Nim (2011)

Nim Chimpsky, a Chimpanzee used in a language acquisition project by Colombia University's Herbert S. Terrace, is presented in a highly anthropomorphized manner in this film. Having never spent any time with a chimpanzee, I can only rely on a rational understanding that they are wild animals, and not hairy weird humans that remind of me of my cousins from Blenheim.

From two weeks old Nim is isolated from all contact with other chimpanzees, and over various periods in his first five years is taught not an insignificant number of sign language words, with the intent to discover whether a chimpanzee could take those words to form grammatically consistent sentences as a human child would.

James Marsh, who also directed the captivating Man On Wire, gets the mood right in the first half of the film, detailing the ins and outs of a 70s era psych research project with a bevy of co-eds, the self-obsessed professor, and of course, a tiny and irresistibly cute chimpanzee. However, as the story twists and turns we get a very sentimentalist view of the hardships of an experimental animal. Beryl suggested that it is cruel to isolate an animal acculturated to human contact, and I agree; it was a poorly designed experiment, in that it didn't plan for the humane treatment of the subject animal at its outcome, but this doesn't necessarily negate Terrace's conclusions.

Conversation starters

  • I don't deny animals have behaviours we interpret as personalities, but I'm uncertain if any animal has language in quite the same way humans do.
  • Nim Chimpsky is a pun. Not a good way to start life.
  • Nim took the phrase "sex kitten" too literally. Chimpanzees don't do metaphors.


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