Hot Docs 2011: Project Nim

Do not raise a baby chimpanzee as if it was your own human child. It's a lesson that a surprising number of scientists had to learn back in the '70s. One of the most tragic examples is the story of the ridiculous charismatic and adorably-named Nim Chimpsky. The new documentary from the director of the Oscar-winning Man On A Wire tells Nim's story from the day he was taken from his mother in 1973, to his death in the year 2000.

It was all part of a project conceived by a professor at Columbia, Herbert Terrace, who wanted to see if a chimpanzee raised as a human and taught sign language would be able to spontaneously create his own sentences as a human child would. Nim got off to great start, rapidly expanding his vocabulary, but there were also signs of trouble. In his interviews, Terrace is downright creepy in a sleazy, combed-over, '70s professor kind of way. It's no coincidence that he places Nim with the family of an ex-student/lover and that he hires a series of young, good-looking female research assistants to work on the project. Nim's well-being never seems to be a real priority for the professor. And those who do care the most and who work with the chimp most often are soon facing bigger and bigger challenges.

Nim, of course, is constantly testing his boundaries and growing quickly. As he matures, and Terrace pulls him out of the house where he's been raised and into a mansion in the country, that begins to become dangerous. He's a loving and caring animal, but also wild. In some of the film's most memorable interviews, research assistants itemize their scars.  One had to get 37 stitches for just one of her many wounds; another recounts the time Nim bit straight through her cheek and she was forced to walk around with a gaping hole in her face for three months.

Things go downhill from there. It seems that Terrace never really had an exit strategy for the project, so the second half of the film follows Nim as he's moved from one sad living situation to another: a parade of barren cages, a medical research laboratory and a lonely ranch in Texas. In the end, it's up those who care that most for him — and who realize how badly they've failed him throughout his life — to try and give Nim's story at least something of a happy ending.

Project Nim will be getting a theatrical release this summer.

Photo: Nim Chimpsky

You'll find all of our Hot Docs coverage here.

Posted by Adam Bunch, the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


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