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EIFF: Project Nim

EIFF presented the latest film from Man On Wire-director James Marsh following a chimp named Nim who was brought up as if human in a social experiment in New York in 1973

After the first weekend at the Edinburgh Film Festival, documentaries have so far been stealing the show. Films such as Bombay Beach and Calvet are among the most talked about, but perhaps the most charming and fascinating of the films on offer so far is Project Nim, which follows the life of a chimp named Nim Chimpsky (a reference to Noam Chomsky’s ideas on all languages sharing a universal grammar). Nim was taken from his mother at birth in 1973 and sent to live with a family in New York, were he was brought up, pretty much, as if he were a human child.

Project Nim was the experiment, led by linguist and psychologist Herbert Terrace, that set to find out whether Nim could be taught a language, so he was taught to sign as a means of communicating with humans. A hugely emotional and thought provoking film, it makes you question ideas on language and identity at the same time as yanking emotional chords with stark treating animals as property. One of the most genuine, thoughtful and lovable characters in the film (and world’s biggest Grateful Dead fan) was Bob Ingersoll who looked after Nim when he was returned to the sanctuary after his time in New York. Dazed Digital chattered to Bob in Edinburgh about his reflections on the project.

Dazed Digital: What first struck you about Nim when you met?
Bob Ingersoll: He was real personable, but not much different than any of the other chimps, like with human behaviour where personalities are all different. I realised that they were all different, but Nim had a real open personality, real fun. Part of my job was to take chimps out on walks. And take them out with famous people, our stuff was really rather well known, people like Michael Crichton came to our place and people from all professional fields came. Everybody had heard of the signing chimp, so if you had some notoriety then you could get our foot in the door and go on a walk with Nim.

DD: Did you take other chimps on these walks?
Bob Ingersoll:
We took a lot of chimps out in groups. In the weekend, if we knew no one was going to be around, they’d all jump up on this red pick up truck and we’d drive out to a field and they’d just go up in the persimmon trees and hang out and we’d just sit there and let them be chimps.

DD: Were the walks when you went to smoke weed with Nim?
Bob Ingersoll:
Oh, that whole weed thing looks good on film and works for a funny point, but it wasn’t something that we did very often. It wasn’t something we introduced into his life, he was the one that signed it to us, ‘stone smoke now.’ He was in High Times magazine in 1975 smoking a pipe when he was in New York. But Nim can ask for a hit off the joint when we went out and smoked in a group - if you’re gonna make them one of us, you cannot exclude them from anything, but I gotta say, it was pretty fun. Chimps act just like you act when you’re high, mellow. We would go and play, and swing from this tree and slide down – pot just facilitates that kind of behaviour. But we didn’t smoke pot with the other chimps. I didn’t anyway, pot was expensive back then.

DD: Was Herb right to say that Nim couldn’t speak a language?
Bob Ingersoll:
As a linguist, I just think he knew what language was without defining it, but I don’t know what a language is now, can you define language in a context that works across the board? It was my opinion that his methodology was so flawed that there was no value. For a start he didn’t bring in native signers. He was looking to see what chimps were thinking in their mind, but I don’t know what you’re thinking right now. ‘Give Nim banana,’ that’s a sentence isn’t it? It’s basic, but he can certainly make requests.

DD: What were you hoping to work on with Nim before he was taken away?
Bob Ingersoll:
Whether Nim can think about the future and the past. We gave Nim a Polaroid camera, we were intending to use those pictures to interface with the places that he wanted to go. So we’re talking about yesterday, ‘remember when we went to this place last week?’ We had a large map that we were going to put the pictures on and say, ‘Nim, where do you want to go?’

DD: Was that a realistic project?
Bob Ingersoll:
Chimps must have a memory of the past. In the wild chimps use medicinal plants when they don’t feel well, so they have to know where that plant is, whether it will be there at that time. They are able in the wild to get those points across to their offspring and their group, so that tells me there’s complex communication going on there somewhere. Unfortunately Nim got yanked away from us before that came to pass.

Project Nim is in cinemas on 12th August 2011