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Project Nim: The Dope on a Charismatic Chimp

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Nim Chimsky, the star of a new movie, died too soon. A charming troublemaker, this chimp, the subject of an experiment in understanding language and communication begun at Columbia University in the '70's changed the lives of many people. That fact came to the fore at the premiere screening on Wednesday night of the new documentary, Project Nim, a bildungsroman if you will, limning his birth, maturation, and particularly his remarkable use of language. An able communicator, Nim learned how to sign, developing a formidable vocabulary. Based on Elizabeth Hess' 2008 book, The Chimp Who Would Be Human, the film presents a deftly assembled narrative of newly found archival footage and interviews with the humans who knew him best: a portrait comes to life. Not only did he arouse passions during his 26 years, but as became evident among the people whose lives he touched, he never stopped being a vital presence.

The Time-Warner Center screening room was packed: Julie Taymor, Edie Falco, Ellen Kuras, writers Daphne Merkin, Deborah Solomon, Adam Gopnik, Calvin Trillin were among those moved to debate the moral and ethical questions generated. A number of the film's talking heads, notably his "mothers" and early teachers, Stephanie LaFarge, Laura Ann Pettito, Joyce Butler took the stage for a Q&A moderated by producer Simon Chinn. Within minutes the scientific was pitted against the anecdotal and passions renewed.

A marked frisson between the gentle Bob Ingersoll and the rather cold Herbert Terrace emerged. Terrace, the psychologist who initiated the experiment, taking Nim away from his biological mother and placing him in a human home, took a scientific distancing stance in the documentary, and onstage, even though his decisions kept putting Nim in more adverse circumstances. While first brought up as a family member, Nim eventually ended up a caged animal. So, was he betrayed in the name of science? Ingersoll, a Boston born veteran from the Vietnam era had perhaps the most man to ... er, monkey relationship with Nim, going on long walks, signing with him, communicating about rocks and berries, and smoking joints. Chimpanzees, he says, like to party the way humans do. When asked what he thought Nim saw in him, he said, "A fellow soul who needed hugs and love."

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