The sad story of Nim

From the archives: ‘Project Nim’ shines at Hot Docs documentary festival

The sad story of Nim

Harry Benson

The movies love mad scientists. All those demented doctors: Frankenstein, Jekyll, Moreau, Strangelove. But we expect them to remain safely confined to the laboratory of science fiction. It’s a shock to come across them in the real world, under the microscope of the documentary camera. Yet mad science seems to be running amok at Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, which unspools in Toronto April 28 to May 8.

After the Apocalypse takes us to a former Soviet nuclear test site in Kazakhstan, where residents were deliberately exposed to radiation as human guinea pigs, and the boss of a maternity clinic advocates “genetic passports” to prevent mothers from giving birth if their genes are suspect. Memoirs of a Plague, a film about locusts, shows a lab scientist dissecting one while it’s still alive, a tiny atrocity captured in a macro close-up that fills the screen. In Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then, a crackpot visionary erects a house as a “healing machine” around his cancer-stricken wife. And on a more benign note, in El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, an insanely innovative chef concocts recipes in a Barcelona laboratory equipped with vacuum­izers, spherifiers and liquid nitrogen.

But of all the stranger-than-fiction films at Hot Docs, none may be more compelling than Project Nim, a biopic about an ape who is drafted into an epic experiment. By turns funny, astounding and disturbing, it comes from American director James Marsh, who made the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire (2008). Like that film—about a tightrope artist who walked between the Twin Towers—it’s an archival saga of the ’70s, evoking the naiveté of an era when all kinds of outrageous behaviour could be framed as a grand experiment.

In 1973, a two-week-old chimpanzee is seized from his mother and raised by a woman with three children, who teaches him sign language and treats him as a special needs child. The objective was to prove that chimpanzees might be capable of human communication. But the movie—based on Elizabeth Hess’s 2008 book, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human—tells us as much about people as it does about animals. “In the course of the film,” says Marsh, “we often discover that Nim studies and understands us better than we understand him.”

The experiment was the brainchild of Herbert Terrace, a professor of behavioural psychology at Columbia University who set out to disprove linguist Noam Chomsky’s thesis that only humans are capable of language. Terrace engages his former student and lover, Stephanie LaFarge, to serve as the infant chimp’s surrogate mom, the first of a string of guardians who adopt Nim in this Dickensian yarn. The flaky LaFarge—who later counselled drug addicts and spent 10 years as a sex therapist before becoming an executive with the ASPCA—introduced Nim to alcohol, marijuana and her own milk. “I breast-fed him for a couple of months,” she recalls in the film. “It seemed completely natural.”

Faster than you can say “Freud,” Nim takes a dislike to LaFarge’s poet husband, then LaFarge becomes jealous as her role is usurped by Terrace’s research assistant Laura Ann Petitto— another of his conquests—who is now a neuroscience professor at the University of Toronto. As Nim grows up, he becomes dangerous, something Joyce Butler, his third surrogate mom, learns from a bite that requires 37 stitches. As she says, “You can’t give human nurturing to an animal who can kill you.”

After years of study, in which Nim mastered a vocabulary of 125 signs and became a minor celebrity, Terrace abandons the project, dismissing the chimp’s language capabilities as begging. “Given his powerless situation in the world, who can blame him?” says Marsh. Or as one of Nim’s guardians confesses, “We exploited his human-like nature without respecting his chimpanzee nature.” Abandoned by science and forced to live with other chimps for the first time, Nim is bounced from one caged gulag to another, with his life on the line. Yet even today, Terrace, the amorous prof with the creepy comb-over, sounds remarkably sanguine. And sane. Rationality is the classic alibi of mad science.

It’s one thing to elicit compassion for a chimp, whose species may be closer to ours than any other. But one doc that really stretches our empathy for animals is Memoirs of a Plague, a weirdly existential love letter to locusts. Filming them in locales ranging from Australia to Ethiopia, director Robert Nugent tries to show that the devastation they wreak is overrated and the pesticide war against them is often futile. Magnified with a 1000x lens, the locusts become Cronenbergian. There’s a snuff scene of pure horror—some of the most harrowing violence I’ve seen on screen—as a scientist sticks a live locust to Plasticine and dissects it for the camera. “They have got a central nervous system,” he calmly observes, as he slices open the wriggling creature to reveal an abdomen that bleeds lemon-yellow. “It’s basically: jump, don’t jump, eat, don’t eat. But they don’t think about things.” Cutting into the head, he adds, “There’s the brain, stretched between the two eyes.”

That callous dismissal of non-human sensation is not so far removed from the professor’s assumptions in Project Nim. But to see the same clinical rationality applied to human specimens is something else. After the Apocalypse, from British director Antony Butts, explores the fallout from 456 nuclear blasts detonated by the Soviets from 1949 to 1989 at the Semipalatinsk test site on the steppes of Kazakhstan. So scientists could study the effects of radiation, residents were not evacuated; some 200,000 were exposed, suffering genetic damage that ricocheted through three generations. Today, one in 20 children in the zone is born with birth defects, and sheep graze in radioactive bomb craters, where herders “protect” themselves with vodka.

Dr. Toleukhan Nurmagambetov, head of the local maternity clinic, takes us to a museum of bottled fetuses with monstrous deformities (such as a cyclops eye), then to an orphanage of children with Down’s syndrome and missing limbs. As the doctor points to the horrors with righteous anger, he seems a sympathetic figure, until it becomes apparent that his rage is fuelled by intolerance.

The film’s narrative hinges on his conflict with Bibigul, a pregnant farmer who tends horses and sheep with her husband. Her birth defects are visible on her face, which the doctor brands “frightful.” The cubist distortion of that face is disturbing at first, but a humanity, even a beauty, shines through. It’s the doctor who seems grotesque as he urges the woman to abort her child, or at least submit to tests, which she refuses. The decision is hers, but if the doctor had his way, it wouldn’t be. And as the suspense of her pregnancy builds, the doctor’s mission of eugenic cleansing has chilling echoes of a Stalinist past.

Sometimes mad science is just harmlessly nutty. Gravity Was Everywhere Back Then is about a Kentucky hardware clerk who erected a crazy contraption of a house to heal his wife—with a pipe organ, a wooden tower, and a halo of light bulbs at her bed. It didn’t work. But after the house was demolished, filmmaker Brent Green rebuilt it as a set for his film—a flickery, stop-motion re-enactment that is as eccentric and experimental as its subject.

Art is one field where mad science becomes legitimate. Take the high art of experimental cuisine explored in El Bulli. Situated on a cove of Spain’s Mediterranean coast, El Bulli (due to shut down permanently later this year) is arguably the world’s most famous restaurant. Each winter it closes for six months while its team of chefs cloister themselves in a Barcelona laboratory to create a new menu of 35 dishes. With a laptop by the stove and the walls plastered with notes, the chefs re-engineer simple ingredients, like sweet potato, into tiny installations of avant-garde art. So serious he could be running the Manhattan Project, head chef Ferran Adrià savours their creations with a ruthless palate, while German filmmaker Gereon Wetzel finds a Warholian absurdity in it all. The masterpiece that gets Adrià excited: a cocktail that consists only of water, oil and salt.

But for the ultimate fusion of mad science and high art, it’s hard to beat Toronto conceptual poet Christian Bök, one of the gurus featured in The Future Is Now!, a Canadian documentary by Gary Burns and Jim Brown. Bök’s ambition is to translate a poem into a genetic sequence, then get a laboratory to implant the sequence into a bacterium, replacing part of its genetic code. “The organism becomes the living embodiment of my poetry,” he explains. “Moreover, that bacterium is going to make a protein in response, a protein that will be another poem that could conceivably last forever.” No doubt a documentary filmmaker will be on hand to record the consequences.

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