Film Review: ‘Unlocking the Cage’

The legendary docu duo of D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus follow the drawn-out legal battle to decide whether a nonhuman animal qualifies for human rights.

Unlocking the Cage Sundance 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Animals are people, too — at least, that’s what Steve Wise and the Nonhuman Rights Project hope to convince the world in “Unlocking the Cage,” a tiresome, five-year account of one well-meaning animal advocate’s ongoing attempts to change U.S. law to recognize certain higher-level animals as “persons” or, failing that, to make his case in the court of public opinion. To that end, Wise went out and convinced Oscar nominees D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The War Room”) to document his organization’s struggle, and though the NhRP does raise a number of interesting questions, this behind-the-scenes legal procedural essentially exposes the lawyer trying to trick a series of New York state judges into granting chimpanzees the same rights as humans.

Likely to be of greater interest in 50 years, once the issue has been more thoroughly vetted in court, as opposed to today, when it feels a bit too much like a publicity stunt, the Kickstarter-backed docu depicts one of the strangest legal conundrums imaginable: How can animals possibly hope to change their status under human law if they can’t actually represent their own interests in court? This is where the extremely publicity-savvy Wise steps in, filing lawsuits on their behalf, then issuing press releases every step of the way.

Focusing on the rather abstract legal notion of “personhood” — a classification extended to corporations under U.S. law — Wise argues that a number of species should be entitled to some of the same rights as American citizens. He begins by identifying great apes, elephants and cetaceans (dolphins, whales and the like) as the most deserving classes, though candid conversations with other animal champs make it clear that he hopes that such protections might eventually be extended to dogs and cats as well (after all, Wise started his career advocating on behalf of canine clients).

If Wise were to succeed in his crusade, he would be the principal engineer in a massive overhaul of how humans view their animal neighbors — which, for the time being, seems to be from a place of superiority rather than respect. But in changing than paradigm, NhRP’s challenge amounts to finding a loophole by which they can alter U.S. law in their favor. And so begins a strategic attempt to find a judge somewhere in the country willing to establish a radical new precedent, wherein the “great writ” of habeas corpus, designed to free those who are wrongfully imprisoned, could be extended to an animal in captivity.

Pennebaker and Hegedus take their usual fly-on-the-wall approach, revealing just enough of NhRP’s planning process for the entire operation to feel rigged, from the decision of where to file (New York seems just progressive enough) to the animals they choose to defend. It’s not that Wise and his team don’t care about their “clients” — three separate chimpanzee couples, held for purposes of either amusement or research — so much as the fact that they have all been carefully selected to support the agenda on hand (and, as far as anyone knows, aren’t actively looking to change their living conditions).

When the targeted chimps start dying, Wise and his team feel doubly empowered to fight for their freedom — or technically, their relocation from New York-based facilities to Florida’s Save the Chimps sanctuary, effectively upgrading them from one form of captivity to another. But as the legal team scrambles to adjust, the film exposes the way in which they, too, are exploiting these apes, who have no idea they’re even being represented in such matters, after all. The chimps’ actual feelings are all but irrelevant, while their deaths are terribly inconvenient to what Wise sees as the greater good of greater apes.

Still, if Wise thinks himself the source of historic “Inherit the Wind”-style courtroom fireworks, he has another think coming. There’s no fiery William Jennings Bryan here to counter his impassioned plea, just a reasonable-minded D.A. obliged to defend the state constitution from being broadly reapplied to all order of primates.

To bolster Wise’s case, the filmmakers include scientific experts to explain that great apes are both aware of their captivity and capable of communicating their distress, and yet they never explain — despite repeated inquiries from nearly every judge he meets — why he doesn’t merely lobby the state legislature for broader animal welfare statutes. Once ridiculed but now relatively well respected as an animal-rights lecturer at Harvard and other universities, Wise is plenty eloquent on the complex legal issue, but remains vague about how the status he seeks will practically impact animals (could animal weddings be far behind?) or why he’s the “person” best qualified to represent them in court.

Film Review: ‘Unlocking the Cage’

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 27, 2016. Running time: <strong>91 MIN.</strong>

  • Production: (Documentary) A HBO Documentary Films presentation of a Pennebaker Hegedus Films production, in co-production with BBC, Arte France, VPRO, in association with SVT Sweden, DR, BBC, VPRO. Produced by Chris Hegedus, Frazer Pennebaker, Rosadel Varela. Executive producer, Pennebaker.
  • Crew: Directed by Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker. Camera (color, HD), Hegedus, Jojo Pennebaker; editor, Pax Wassermann; music, James Lavino; associate producer, Julia McInnis.
  • With: Steven Wise, David Favre, Elizabeth Stein, Gail Price-Wise, Sue Savage-Rimbaugh, Natalie Prosin, Jen Feuerstein, Charles Siebert, Carmen Presti, David Wolfson, Dean Sommer, Christopher Coulson, Barbara Jaffe.