Category Archives: From the Horse’s Mouth

Conversations with Chimpanzees

Recently I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Primatologist Bob Ingersoll, who is an active advocate for chimpanzees and was one of the key players in the life of Nim Chimpsky, the extraordinary chimp who was the subject of an experiment in language development in chimpanzees. Initially raised as if he were human, Nim communicated using sign-language until the humans he was working with, did not know what to do with him any longer. Here, Bob talks about his work, his memories of Nim, and the film which is opening at Violet Crown Cinema this Friday, PROJECT NIM.

Bob Ingersoll and Nim

Elizabeth Skerrett: How did you first get involved with chimpanzees?

Bob Ingersoll: As it turns out, I was in the air force and I met this girl from Oklahoma who I ended up marrying. So I moved across the country to where she was living in Missouri, a couple of hundred miles from Oklahoma in Kansas City. And while I was there in 1974, I heard about Washoe [a chimpanzee who was being raised as a human] from a graduate student who was teaching my introduction to zoology lab. And I was in that class where this guy who was a kid himself, could not stop talking about this talking chimpanzee in Oklahoma. And that made me wonder what he was talking about so I did a little research and found out about Washoe and Roger Fouts who had all this going on at the University of Oklahoma. And as it turns out, I was going to be going to the University of Oklahoma in a few months because my then-wife was getting out of the Air Force and we were moving to Norman to be students at the university there. And lo and behold Roger Fouts was my first professor in my first class at OU. So I went up to him and said, “I want to work with you.” And he said, “Sure”. He told me what to do, and I did it, and a few days later I was with Nim’s older brother, Ally. So that’s how it happened. I accidentally ended up in Oklahoma and coincidentally ended up in Roger Fouts’ class. And it was a stroke of luck for me because I was looking for something meaningful in my life after having gotten out of the military in the Vietnam War and not really knowing what the hell I was going to do, or who I was going to be.

ES: That’s awesome.

BI: Yeah, I was really lucky.

ES: So what was your first impression of Nim and his previous caretakers?

BI: Well, Nim was already in New York, because he was born in 1973, a year before I fell into the whole chimpanzee-sign-language debate. I knew about Nim because I was hanging out with his older brother, Ally, but I didn’t know much about his personality. I knew how Ally was. He was kind of skittish and gun-shy around humans. His personality wasn’t nearly as accessible as Nim’s. In the scene of the film where you see Joyce and Bill bring him to the center and they’re holding Nim, looking like, “Holy crap”, I’m sure that’s how Nim was too. Well I happened to be there that day, watching the events unfold from the sidelines because I was just a student. And I immediately thought, “Man, this is bad.” Not only do these two humans really love this chimp with all their heart, they are supremely bummed because they don’t really have a say in this. And Nim was even more freaked out because he was seeing a bunch of chimps in cages, but he had never seen a chimp before other than the two weeks he spent with his mother. I thought that this was bad and it was just going to get worse. After they left, I had empathy for both Joyce and Bill, and I just thought that the best thing that I could do was to become friends and see what happens. And I found Nim to be just awesome, really open, and accessible, and friendly, and funny, and fun to be around. You’d think he would be pissed off at the circumstances. But he didn’t know that he should have been in Africa and he should have had a family of chimps. So he was pretty open to whatever was happening and it didn’t take him very long, in my opinion, to really accept that he was a chimp. From the time I met him, my first thought was to make him a chimp. And what better way than to let him hang out with other chimps. So that’s what we did as much as we could until the chimps got tangled up in that mess of getting sold to the Laboratory for Experimentation and Surgery in Primates. I was pretty vocal about the whole situation because all chimps are individual beings and deserve the same kind of treatment. It’s an ongoing controversy. Nim is kind of the poster-boy for “what-not-to-do with chimps.”

Joyce, Bill, and Nim

ES: That’s a theme of the movie, isn’t it? The powers that be making decisions that are not in the best interest of many individuals and they don’t have any control over it. For instance, Nim was separated from his mother, Stephanie, his first foster-mother, the students, and then from you.

BI: Right. Chimps were treated like property. And I think that is an issue when you realize that these are living, feeling beings. It is difficult to address that. It seems to me that we are grappling with how to deal with it because obviously, chimpanzees are not machines. How do we deal with that as humans? How do we deal with our closest relatives? It seems to me that a lot of these issues are more philosophical than scientific. At the time, I was just a kid and was still mulling over the ethical ramifications of the experiment in my head. I was starting to meet chimps and understand them on their level. From the 1975 perspective, I have to say that nobody, or not very many people, thought that what they were doing, taking a chimp into a human family and seeing what happens, seemed that unusual back then. Now, that seems crazy – really crazy. Now, my problem with Herb is his lack of methodology and blaming Nim for something that wasn’t his fault. And I have a big problem with the fact that they did not know anything about chimps. That’s a thing that could have easily been solved. Chimpanzees are a lot more complex than we give them credit for. When you are actually interacting with an animal, it is a real eye-opener.

ES: One last question, and this one is admittedly a little off-subject. But did you see the film, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES?

BI: Hell yeah! I was sitting there in the audience thinking, “This film is about my life!” And they have alluded to the fact that they know all about Nim and that guy who is the star…

ES: James Franco.

BI: Yeah. He was very aware of Project Nim while they were filming that movie. I found RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to be very engaging, extremely entertaining, and an accurate portrayal of what goes on in labs in terms of the boredom and other things that go on, philosophically. I also really liked that the chimps and the orangutans are the heroes of that movie, as opposed to the humans. It seems to me anyway that that movie is way ahead of its time. And I think it’s great because it’s entertaining. That’s why I think PROJECT NIM is so good. Though it’s kind of hard, and it really is a little difficult at times, it’s still very entertaining.

Bob will be at Violet Crown this weekend for special Q&A’s so be sure to stop by and get the full story of PROJECT NIM.

To Violet Crown Patrons From James Marsh

Director, James Marsh, has given us documentaries, such as MAN ON WIRE, that present complicated, but extraordinary characters accomplishing things most people would never attempt. His newest film, PROJECT NIM, is no less incredible and he sent this letter to tell you why.

To All Violet Crown Cinema Patrons and Supporters

A brief note from filmmaker James Marsh

I’m really pleased that my new film Project Nim will be shown at Violet Crown Cinema. I shot my first feature film The King in Austin in the summer of 2004 and I have great memories of the film community in Austin and the warmth and friendliness of the people in your very cool city.

Project Nim is an unusual proposition for a film. We’ve tried to apply some of the principles and techniques of a traditional film biography to the life story of animal. In the film, we follow an individual chimpanzee through infancy and adolescence to adulthood, all the while witnessing both his emerging behavior and its impact on the humans who lived around him.  There are many intriguing behavioral overlaps between humans and chimpanzees explored in the film but it’s the differences between the species that really shape Nim’s life with us and determine his unhappy fate.

As infant Nim grows up, much of his behavior seems familiar, often surprisingly and amusingly so. He laughs, he cries, he craves attention and affection, he is a thrill seeker and a hedonist with a penchant for illegal drugs. He has an extraordinary memory and never forgets anyone he meets. He can be empathetic, affectionate and mischievous.

But from very early on, his own unique nature also asserts itself. His first ‘mother’, Stephanie LaFarge, is quite shocked by ‘the wild animal in him’ and this continues to emerge powerfully as he grows. If you lack confidence in his presence, look at him the wrong way, or otherwise disrespect him, he will attack and hurt you. Having made his point, he’ll probably apologize and try to make it up to you.

The paradox and heartbreak for the humans around Nim is that he can scratch and bite people whom he seems to genuinely like. The heartbreak for Nim is that he cannot be any other way and as he gets stronger, this will guarantee his virtual imprisonment. In the film, we get to know an individual chimpanzee whose baffled reaction to his increasing confinement can stand for the many many thousands of chimpanzees, equally individual and distinct in character, who find themselves under our control in the same or worse situations.

Notwithstanding the dedicated scientific study of Nim, in the course of the film we often discover that Nim studies and understands us better than we understand him. And how many of the characteristics that we recognize in Nim reflect part of our own genetic endowment? Our murderous aggression, our social hierarchies, our need for hedonistic diversion and sensation – are these hard wired in our species as well?

The humans in the film are consciously holding up a mirror to Nim in order to understand him but we must also ponder the mirror he holds up to us in return. Hence the film’s interest in the purely human behavior that Nim exposed in his friends, companions and oppressors.

After I finished my work, I was still vexed about the propriety of the final statement we hear in the film which posits the idea that chimps have a capacity and indeed an instinct for forgiveness. I didn’t want to insult Nim with another misleading human projection after so many others had negatively impacted his life. But I realized that the film had already discovered many examples of Nim’s forgiving nature and the person offering the statement, a research vet who by his own admission had caused much suffering and pain to chimpanzees in the name of science, seems both well qualified to know and at this point in the story, the most in need of – and deserving – of the animals’ grace.

I really hope you get to see the film and are able to ponder some of the many fascinating aspects of this unique story for yourselves.

And on a personal note, keep Austin weird, please.

-James Marsh, December 2011

A Letter from the Director

We are thrilled to be opening INTERRUPTERS at VCC this Friday, which is an incredible and important film to see. But don’t just take our word for it…

Dear Violet Crown Cinema goers,

I am thrilled that THE INTERRUPTERS is playing at your great new home for independent cinema in Austin.  This film was an incredibly immersive experience for me, and my partners on the film – friend and producer Alex Kotlowitz and co-producer and sound recordist Zak Piper.  We spent nearly 14 months on the streets of Chicago, shooting over 340 hours of footage to try and capture the brave efforts of “violence interrupters” who work for an organization called CeaseFire.  Daily the work to mediate violent conflicts and prevent retaliations in their communities.

For me, this film was something of a homecoming:  It was 25 years ago (God, I feel old!) that I began working on HOOP DREAMS in some of the same kinds of neighborhoods we filmed in this film.  Then as now, the threat of violence and the stress of living in forgotten communities was palpable.  For too many in these urban neighborhoods, little has changed.

Indeed, in the years since HOOP DREAMS was completed, two prominent people from that film have been senselessly murdered – Arthur Agee’s father Bo, and William Gates’ older brother Curtis.  I saw the devastating impact those losses had on their families.

Alex and I expected making THE INTERRUPTERS to be tough and depressing duty, and it was at times. But it was also profoundly moving and inspiring to see ex-gangbangers and convicts like Interrupters Cobe Williams, Ameena Matthews, and Eddie Bocanegra not just change their own lives, but really change others with whom they intervene.

And it’s this aspect of the film that has surprised audiences since its Sundance premiere and very successful festival run.  You can learn more about the film and the work of CeaseFire at

And as Cobe says at screenings he attends:  “If you love the movie, tell everyone. If you don’t, don’t tell nobody!”

All the best,

Steve James