Australian Council on Children and the Media

Project Nim

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Short takes

Not recommended under 14, PG to 15 (Distressing themes; Violence; Coarse language)

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This topic contains:

  • overall comments and recommendations
  • details of classification and consumer advice lines for Project Nim
  • a review of Project Nim completed by the Australian Council on Children and the Media (ACCM) on 29 September 2011.

Overall comments and recommendations

Children under 14 Not recommended for children due to distressing themes, violence and course language
Children aged 14-15 Parental guidance recommended due to distressing themes, violence and course language

About the movie

This section contains details about the movie, including its classification by the Australian Government Classification Board and the associated consumer advice lines.

Name of movie: Project Nim
Classification: M
Consumer advice lines: Mature themes and coarse language
Length 94 minutes

ACCM review

This review of the movie contains the following information:

A synopsis of the story

Project Nim is a documentary which details the true life story of Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee who was at the centre of a controversial 1970‘s experiment to see if a chimpanzee raised as a human child could develop human language. 

Herbert Terrace, a behavioural psychologist from Columbia University, was the director of Project Nim and is seen throughout the movie as instrumental to the decisions that were made for Nim and his future welfare.  The movie begins at the commencement of Herbert’s  experiment with the removal of Nim from his biological mother.  Nim is sent to an ex-student of Herbert’s, Stephanie LeFarge, who is a mother of three children and step-mother to four.  Stephanie rears Nim as her own child for a number of years.  She breast-feeds, loves, nurtures and educates him until Herbert becomes concerned that Nim’s time with Stephanie and her family is not following appropriate scientific parameters. 

Herbert moves Nim to a mansion in the country where he employs a number of dedicated sign language teachers and carers to take over the care of Nim..  Nim continues to astound the science world with his growing acquisition of language but his burgeoning adolescence sees him become more territorial, more sexualised and more aggressive towards his carers and teachers.  After a violent attack on one of Nim’s closest teachers, Laura-Ann Petitto, his future becomes uncertain. 

Five years after Nim was removed from his natural surrounds, Herbert returns him to his birth place, a university research facility.  While there Nim meets pyschology masters graduate, Bob Angelini, who takes an active interest in his happiness and welfare. 

Themesinfo

Children and adolescents may react adversely at different ages to themes of crime, suicide, drug and alcohol dependence, death, serious illness, family breakdown, death or separation from a parent, animal distress or cruelty to animals, children as victims, natural disasters and racism. Occasionally reviews may also signal themes that some parents may simply wish to know about.

Cruelty to animals; parent-child separation; human relationships with animals; experimenting on animals

Use of violenceinfo

Research shows that children are at risk of learning that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution when violence is glamourised, performed by an attractive hero, successful, has few real life consequences, is set in a comic context and / or is mostly perpetrated by male characters with female victims, or by one race against another.

Repeated exposure to violent content can reinforce the message that violence is an acceptable means of conflict resolution. Repeated exposure also increases the risks that children will become desensitised to the use of violence in real life or develop an exaggerated view about the prevalence and likelihood of violence in their own world.

There is some violence in this movie including:

  • A number of scenes refer to Nim’s developing aggression towards his carers. Carers tell of incidents where Nim became territorial or angry and attacked the carers.  In one incident almost Nim ripped a carer’s face off and another incident tells of a time when Nim attacked a carer by banging her head repeatedly against the floor.  These are not shown.
  • Another scene talks of Nim swiping at a poodle and killing her.  The scene shows blood against the wall.
  • When Stephanie returns to see Nim almost 10 years after she first cared for him, Nim is angry and attacks her when she enters his cage. Images support the story but the attack is not seen directly.  The scene ends with Stephanie lying on the ground, but she is unharmed.
  • While Nim is at the experimental medical laboratory he is seen stretched out on a counter, with legs and arms held down by leather straps.  The lab technicians inject him with medications.

Material that may scare or disturb children

Under fiveinfo

Children under five are most likely to be frightened by scary visual images, such as monsters, physical transformations.

In addition to the above-mentioned violent scenes, there is a constant emotional intensity in the film and a number of scenes that could disturb children under the age of five, including the following:

  • There are a number of scenes where Nim and other chimpanzes are seen emotionally distressed.  Because of the chimps’ human characteristics these scenes are very upsetting as we see the chimps’ emotional reactions to being separated from their mother and carers, being left in cages and alone.  The chimps are heard screaming and look sad and withdrawn at times. 
  • Nim is separated on a number of occasions from the carers that he had developed strong attachments to.  This begins with his mother’s very traumatised response to Nim being removed from her and continues with scenes such as Nim being taken from Stephanie, Laura leaving Nim, the research team leaving Nim in the research facility, Nim and others being taken to the experimental lab, and finally being caged on a farm alone and depressed.  These are very difficult scenes to watch due to Nim’s very upset reactions and are likely to be very traumatic for children of this age group.

Aged five to eightinfo

Children aged five to eight will also be frightened by scary visual images and will also be disturbed by depictions of the death of a parent, a child abandoned or separated from parents, children or animals being hurt or threatened and / or natural disasters.

The above scenes could also disturb children under the age of eight

Aged eight to thirteeninfo

Children aged eight to thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic threats and dangers, violence or threat of violence and / or stories in which children are hurt or threatened.

Children in this age group are also very likely to be disturbed by the above-mentioned scenes.

Over thirteeninfo

Children over the age of thirteen are most likely to be frightened by realistic physical harm or threats, molestation or sexual assault and / or threats from aliens or the occult.

Younger children in this age group are also likely to be disturbed by some of the scenes described above.

Product placement

None of concern

Sexual references

There are some sexual references in this movie, including:

  • The researchers discuss their own personal relationships with one another.  On a number of occasions they state that they had ‘sexual relationships’ with one another.
  • The movie explores Nim’s own sexuality and refers on a few occasions to his masturbating.  Nim is seen ‘humping’ a cat and his carers.
  • Stephanie breast-feeds Nim for a few months as a small chimpanzee. She discusses his ‘exploration’ of her body as he begins to get older.  Nim is seen feeling and exploring Stephanie’s body during one scene.

Nudity and sexual activity

None of concern

Use of substances

There is some use of substances in this movie, including:

  • There are a number of references to ‘pot smoking’ throughout the movie.  A number of Nim’s teachers/carers refer to their own marijuana smoking and there is a scene where Nim is seen smoking marijuana and the effects on his behaviour are discussed.
  • There is a verbal reference to Nim drinking alcohol on one occasion.

Coarse language

There is some coarse language in this movie, including:

  • bitch
  • fuck
  • holy shit

In a nutshell

Project Nim is a documentary movie which explores the debate of nature vs nurture through the life of Nim, a chimpanzee who was raised as a human child for a controversial research project.

This movie could give parents the opportunity to discuss with their children attitudes and behaviours, and their real-life consequences, such as:

  • Cruelty to animals
  • How would you like Nim to have been treated after the project ended? 
  • What are the positives and negatives of treating animals like humans?
  • Do you think that the use of animals for medical testing is ethical?   

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