Chimp caught in tragic human love triangle

Who knew that a chimp could get in the middle of a human love triangle? And enjoy the pleasures of marijuana?

2008 Sundance Grand Jury (and 2009 Oscar) winner Director James Marsh, evidently, whose new documentary, PROJECT NIM, is about the chimpanzee (Nim), who in the 1970’s was taken from his mother and sent to live with a bunch of Upper West Side hippies in a nature-versus-nature experiment gone terribly wrong.

The film is mostly tragic, but Marsh has an uncanny eye for the comedic and perverse elements in his story, which went over well with the packed house at the historic Egyptian Theater on Thursday night. The tiny screen, cramped seats and no line in the ladies room was a reminder that we are not in L.A. anymore! Which, of course, is precisely the appeal of this festival, which still feels homey, despite what everyone says about all the limos and swag. With hot chocolate, and a neighbor who kindly did not spill too much of his puffy jacket onto our seat, we adjusted.

In a Q&A session after the screening, Marsh admitted that he’d taken some liberties with the tale of Nim, saying, “I created my version, a dramatic version of this story.” He also said how grateful he was to the people who spoke to him for the film, including Stephanie Lafarge, Nim’s first surrogate mom (the “rich hippy” who introduced him to pot); Laura-Ann Petitto, the pretty-young-thing undergrad who later took care of Nim (and got in the middle of Lafarge’s dalliance with research head Herb Terrace); and Bob Ingersoll, who befriended the chimp when he was returned to a research facility. All of them were in the house on Thursday, and spoke rather poignantly about their experiences with Nim; none more so than Lafarge, who talked about going back to visit Nim years later, when he was back in a cage. She said she showed up with “smelly salts stuffed into my brassiere,” only to find him “furious”—indeed, he nearly killed her. Looking back, she said, her visit wasn’t altruistic. “I only went back for me,” she said, implying she needed closure. “That was the gift he gave me.”

For more of Nicole’s dispatches at the Sundance Film Festival see her
blog on
The Daily Beast.