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Film about neuroscientist’s work with chimp premieres at Sundance


Renowned cognitive neuroscientist Laura-Ann Petitto is no stranger to the media spotlight. Ever since she spent four years as a teacher and surrogate mother to a very special chimpanzee in New York City in the early 1970s, Petitto has been the subject of countless print, television, and radio stories about her furry charge, as well as her many other scientific discoveries in the intervening three decades.
Project Nim Chimpsky, in which Petitto and her colleagues at Columbia University raised an infant ape named Nim in a rich social and loving context and attempted to teach him American Sign Language, launched Petitto on a remarkable career of discovery. She has since become a world authority on the biological basis of human language, the tissue in the developing brain that makes possible language learning in our species, in addition to her many influential papers on the ape and human mind.
But this past January, in Park City, Utah, Petitto experienced an entirely new level of mainstream attention. Park City is home to the Sundance Film Festival, arguably the most important independent cinema festival in the world. And this year, the movie chosen from thousands of entries to open Sundance was Project Nim, a documentary about the life of Nim Chimpsky by Academy Award-winning director, James Marsh.
Two years previous, Petitto had received a letter from Marsh just weeks after he’d won the Oscar for his documentary Man on Wire. In the letter, Marsh’s description about the film he wanted to make about Nim was so erudite and reflective that Petitto agreed to help in any way she could. But Marsh only managed to finish the film virtually on the day that Sundance film entries were due, leaving no chance for Petitto to see the finished product. To make up for this, Marsh’s Producers invited Petitto and several others in the film to the grand gala premiere. Petitto sat next to old colleagues she hadn’t seen in decades, while the life of the little chimp she’d raised almost from birth played out on the screen.
 “The movie is evocative, emotional, and it gets the audience quite riled up,” says Petitto. “It was an invaluable experience. I was so glad I was there.”
The film played four times in four days, and after each screening the Chimpsky team were invited up on stage for a Q&A session with the audience. For Petitto, these interactions with the audience were thrilling, as they revealed which aspects inspired the audience and which left burning questions at the core of our human society.
“People were interested in everything from the sublime to the ridiculous,” she says now with a laugh. “They wanted to know where Nim slept at night, what he ate, how he went to the bathroom. But they also wanted to talk about deeper issues, like the important ethical questions surrounding human biomedical experimentation with animals, which, sadly, we were stunned to learn Nim experienced in his later life. It was thus rewarding to see how interested people were, how emotionally stirred they were, and how much they needed to talk afterwards. It was fascinating.”
And it looks like Dr. Petitto will have to get used to speaking once again about those days in New York when she taught a chimpanzee to communicate with humans. Project Nim has secured wide release, will be in theatres across North America this summer, and is an early Oscar favourite.
To learn more about Dr. Laura-Ann Petitto’s research, click here.

© University of Toronto Scarborough