Nov 062011
Authors: Jason Berlinberg

“Project Nim” is a documentary about a 1970s study created by Columbia University Psychology professor Herbert Terrace to try to teach a chimpanzee to learn sign language.

The film not only relates an intriguingly peculiar story, but it also provides the vehicle for a heartbreaking tale of humanity possibly overstepping its boundaries.

Terrace’s inexperienced team worked with a chimp named Nim, who was forcibly removed from his mother when he was born.

Nim is placed in the care of psychology student Stephanie LaFarge, whose lax attitude toward parenting and casual dismissal of scientific structure creates vulnerability in Nim’s progress.

But for better or worse, LaFarge raises Nim like a human child in the environment of a human family.

Augmented by the brilliantly odd story of “Project Nim” is its ethical backbone, which carries the ideological load through the entirety of the film.

The movie is not afraid to delve into the deeper ethical issues surrounding the project, presenting the more unappealing aspects of the consequences that occur when you raise a chimpanzee in a human environment.

It is truly heartbreaking to see Nim being helplessly passed along from owner to owner, switching surroundings and living conditions for the depraved benefit of some scientist in a lab.

Rather than attempting to spark an uprising with animal activists, director James Marsh (who directed 2008’s Best Documentary Film “Man On Wire”) simply presents all the facts surrounding this specific project in a profound and interesting way that can’t help but lend itself to deeper ethical musings.

So that raises the age-old question: Are there limits to what human beings should be allowed to in the name of science?

I guess you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Movie reviewer Jason Berlinberg can be reached at

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