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The Sundance Diaries: The Interrupters and Project Nim


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Tamara Krinsky is reporting on the science-oriented films and conversations from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. This is her first report for Scientific American.

When one thinks of Sundance, "science" isn’t usually one of the first words that comes to mind. However, when attending the annual forward thinking festival in Park City, Utah, there is a surprising amount of science being discussed and observed, whether it’s a primary element in documentary films that showcase such subjects such as signing chimpanzees and technology, a concept fueling a narrative science fiction films, or a more subtle underlying element of a larger story.

Steve James’ The Interrupters, playing in the Doc Premieres category, is about former Chicago gang members who attempt to disrupt the stream of violence in their neighborhoods. In the absorbing, moving and often disturbing film, James (Hoop Dreams) follows a dynamic trio of these "violence interrupters" for a year as they attempt to keep disputes from turning deadly. Their goal is very clear – they are not trying to "solve" the gang problem or interrupt the drug trade – they are specifically trying to prevent shootings and save lives.

One of the reasons they are able to actually do so is because of their credibility with the gang members due to their own personal histories: Ameena Matthews is a former drug ring enforcer and the daughter of Chicago gang leader Jeff Fort; Cobe Williams has been in and out of prison multiple times for crimes ranging from selling drugs to attempted murder; and Eddie Bocanegra committed murder at the age of 17. All are compelling; all become intimately involved in the lives of those they try to help.

And just how is this connected to science, you ask? Matthews, Fort and Williams are all part of an organization called CeaseFire, an initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention (the film was originally inspired by producer Alex Kotlowitz’s New York Times Magazine cover story on the organization). CeaseFire was founded by Gary Slutkin, M.D., a physician and an epidemiologist who worked for the World Health Organization and spent 10 years in Africa fighting the spread of AIDS and other diseases. He looks at gang violence as an infectious disease – after all, it’s what many of these men expect to die from – and believes that it should be treated as such. From Kotlowitz’s New York Times Magazine article:

He says that violence directly mimics infections like tuberculosis and AIDS, and so, he suggests, the treatment ought to mimic the regimen applied to these diseases: go after the most infected, and stop the infection at its source. “For violence, we’re trying to interrupt the next event, the next transmission, the next violent activity,” Slutkin told me recently. “And the violent activity predicts the next violent activity like H.I.V. predicts the next H.I.V. and TB predicts the next TB.” Slutkin wants to shift how we think about violence from a moral issue (good and bad people) to a public health one (healthful and unhealthful behavior).

The organization’s website details how it is moving forward with Slutkin’s philosophy of violence as a public health issue:

Formed in 1995, the Chicago Project takes a strategic public health approach to violence prevention. This approach has been employed to address and reduce other serious health threats, such as child mortality, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, smallpox, and polio. It includes a full commitment to a specific objective (in this case stopping shootings), the setting of long-term and short-term goals, strategy development based on best practices and adapted to the local situation by local practitioners, and a management structure that works at both the community and city/county levels. The public health approach relies heavily on public education to change attitudes and behaviors toward violence, outreach using individuals recruited from the target population, community involvement to change norms, and evaluation methods to monitor strategy.

Academy Award winner James Marsh (Man on Wire) returned to Sundance this year with his new documentary Project Nim, playing in the World Cinema Documentary strand. The film chronicles the story of Nim, the chimpanzee who, in the 1970s, was the main subject of an experiment to prove that if you raised an ape like a child, he could learn to communicate using sign language. The film combines interviews with Nim’s various caretakers and teachers, archival footage and captivating photos to provide a multi-faceted look at Nim’s life. To some, he is simply the subject of an experiment; to others, he is a surrogate child; and for many, he becomes a friend.

It is to the filmmakers’ credit that they were able to get so many of those who participated in Nim’s life to speak on the record, as several of the portrayals are not exactly flattering. This is especially true of Professor Herbert Terrace, the Columbia University behavioral psychologist who originated "Project Nim" as a groundbreaking research study of animal language acquisition. He often comes off in the film as clinical and cold hearted, only interested in Nim when the chimp provides an opportunity for Terrace’s own publicity. It’s also fascinating to hear from Stephanie Lafarge, the woman who took care of Nim when he was first born. A former student of Terrace’s, she brought Nim into her home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and raised the baby chimp like he was her own child, including breastfeeding him.

During the Q&A after the screening of the film, an audience member asked Marsh how he was able to get everyone to participate. The filmmaker said that everyone wanted to tell his or her version of the story. For Terrace, it was his experiment, so there were certain things he had to do. Laura, one of Nim’s teachers, hadn’t spoken about the story in 30 years, yet her husband said that Nim was present in her life everyday under the surface.

As Nim progresses from infancy to adulthood, we see him move from Lafarge’s home to a large mansion then owned by Columbia University called Delafield Estate in Riverdale, NY. A series of female student teachers come and live with him there to carry out Terrace’s experiment, adding to his sign language vocabulary while at the same time providing companionship and nurturing. There’s also quite a bit of canoodling that goes on amidst Nim’s caretakers – the human relationships in the movie have a narrative all their own!

Nim’s animal instincts emerge more strongly as he grows, and bites and attacks become a regular occurrence, despite Nim’s obvious attachment to his teachers. At the age of five, the experiment is abandoned and Nim is taken back to The Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma where he was born. Though he has a hard time adjusting to being amongst his fellow chimps, he makes friends with some of the human staff and eventually settles into this new life. Caretaker Bob Ingersoll develops an especially close bond with the chimp, communicating with him via both official and unofficial signs and in general, treating Nim like his buddy. Indeed, a scene in which Bob, a diehard Grateful Dead fan, shares a joint with Nim elicited huge laughs from the festival audience ("After all," Bob explains, "it was the 70′s").

If the story ended there, perhaps the film wouldn’t be so provocative, but when the Center runs out of funds, Nim is sold into medical research, where we see the once exuberant chimp locked up in a small, isolated cage. It is sad and scary, and one’s heart aches for the animal. This is just the first of several unhappy situations for Nim; luckily, the human "family" he became part of earlier in life comes to his rescue several times throughout these later, troubled chapters.

Raised with humans, as a human from the beginning, Nim ends up occupying a space betwixt and between…he is clearly not meant to live solely amongst human beings, yet he is different than all the other chimps he comes into contact with due to his upbringing. He does indeed learn to sign, though there are disagreements in the film about whether or not he actually can string together coherent sentences as well as his driving motivation. Terrace eventually concludes that the experiment is a failure and that all of Nim’s signing is actually just an advanced form of begging. But as Marsh says in his Director’s Statement for the film, "Given his powerless situation in the human world, who can blame him for that?"

Alternately funny, poignant, adorable and upsetting, Project Nim raises questions about our relationship to animals, the definition of humane treatment, and the ethics of animal testing. HBO acquired all U.S. rights to the documentary just prior to the festival.

More from the Festival as soon as my feet defrost…

Image credits: #1: Ameena Matthews in Interrupters; #2: Cobe Williams in Interrupters; #3: Interrupters Director Steve James, photo by Aaron Wickenden; #4: Project Nim Director James Marsh; #5: Nim, photo by Harry Benson. All images provided to press by Sundance.

About the Author: Tamara Krinsky is an actress, journalist, new media producer and science geek. She is the associate editor of Documentary Magazine, and has written for Variety, Filmmaker Magazine, indieWire, Tubefilter.com and The Star Ledger, among others. As an on-camera host, she covers entertainment, tech and science news, including red carpets, sit down interviews and live events—adventures include writing and hosting THE SPOTLIGHT, a lighthearted tech news show for consumer tech site Tom’sGuide.com; correspondent work for PBS’s WIRED SCIENCE; Marvel.com‘s red carpet coverage and AT THE FEST (Webby honoree), which featured interviews with independent film directors, writers and talent. She blogs about science and culture at www.sciencelush.com, and tweets @tamarakrinsky. For more: www.tamarakrinsky.com.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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