Laura-Ann Petitto teaches Nim Chimpsky sign language, as seen in the movie… (Susan Kuklin / Roadside…)
Reporting from New York — — An 18th century novel doesn't seem like an obvious inspiration for a documentary about a chimpanzee in a modern scientific experiment, but that's part of what influenced James Marsh when he made "Project Nim." Like Henry Fielding's sprawling epic, "Tom Jones," Marsh says, his film about a charismatic primate who learns to use sign language "holds up a mirror" to the world around his protagonist.
That mirror is not always flattering to the well-heeled bohemians, student idealists and researchers who came into Nim Chimpsky's orbit starting in the 1970s. But it lingers longest on Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University behavioral psychologist who conceived the experiment in a challenge to linguist Noam Chomsky's contention that grammatical speech is uniquely human.
Now, Terrace is unhappy with what he says Marsh's filmic looking glass has reflected back: a remote, publicity-seeking scientist who exploited a helpless animal without sufficient regard for his long-term well being. In Terrace's view, the film omits the real story of unbiased scientific work that deserves respect for delivering important results.
"I'm upset because the film creates the impression the project was a failure because it didn't turn out the way I'd hoped it would when I started," Terrace declared recently in his office at Columbia, where he still runs the Primate Cognition Laboratory. "The only line between success and failure for scientists is really whether they honestly report their results, and I did that."
But that's not all Terrace is displeased about. "The film also suggests I was not affectionately involved with Nim. And that's not true." Marsh, he added, has "made a technically good film, but he's misrepresented me, and he misrepresented the science."
Marsh, who directed the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire," about high-wire artist Philippe Petit, said he "couldn't have made the film" without Terrace and denies editing the movie to cast the professor in a poor light. "Project Nim," he said, merely captures what his on-camera interviewees — "witnesses," he calls them — think about the complicated, controversial project with the benefit of hindsight.
The rift between Terrace and Marsh is spilling out into the open as the film arrives in theaters this month after premiering in January at the Sundance Film Festival — a premiere that Marsh admits he worked to keep Terrace from attending because others in the film didn't want him there.
Just as Marsh's documentary didn't turn out as Terrace might have anticipated, neither did the original project with Nim Chimpsky.
Terrace was a Harvard-trained protégé of behaviorist B.F. Skinner, who believed one could teach animals to do almost anything, and the Skinner-Chomsky rivalry framed the Nim project. Marsh's film, however, barely touches on the scientific context and instead uses archival footage, interviews and dramatic re-creations (including a man in a chimp suit) to envelop viewers in Nim's perspective.
The story begins in 1973, when the head of a primate center in Oklahoma shoots a female chimpanzee with a tranquilizer gun and sweeps her infant from her. That baby — Nim — is flown to New York and into the arms of a human mother picked by Terrace. This new mom is studying psychoanalysis, her husband is a poet, and she dwells on Nim's Oedipal tendencies as he wreaks chaos in her brownstone.
Because chimps' anatomy hinders them from vocalizing words, Terrace and his students teach Nim sign language. In the film, the frontier between species seems to narrow as Nim's learned signs flash across the screen — the chimp claps his hands to sign "play," touches his mouth to indicate "eat." Seeing a cat in a handler's lap, he points to himself, and gestures three signs: "Nim," "hug," "cat."
After several years, and a series of teachers who develop strong attachments to Nim (and sometimes to each other), Terrace runs into funding problems and ends the project. Nim is sent back to the Oklahoma center, and Terrace sets about studying the data collected during the experiment.
Other researchers who were growing confident about chimp-human connections believed that the Nim experiment would topple Chomsky's claim once and for all. But Terrace stunned the primate research world with a 1979 paper declaring that Chomsky was right: Though it may have looked like Nim was making human-like sentences, in fact, Terrace concluded, he was communicating in ways less developed than people do.
That paper, cowritten with Laura-Ann Petitto, a key Nim teacher, has stood the test of time and has been reinforced by recent genetic research on chimpanzees, according to Jon Cohen, a longtime reporter for Science magazine and author of a recent well-received book on chimp-human relations, "Almost Chimpanzee: Searching for What Makes Us Human, in Rainforests, Labs, Sanctuaries, and Zoos."