Unlocking the Cage

Playing at Cinematheque Oct. 14 to 21

Documentarians and longtime collaborators D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have turned their lenses on some larger-than-life subjects, from rock stars to political giants. Thus, it’s surprising their newest film focuses on polite and unassuming animal rights lawyer Steven Wise.

But Unlocking the Cage is far from unassuming. The film follows Wise and his colleagues in the Nonhuman Rights Project in their quest to have animals recognized as legal persons. In this case, the particular animals are a few captive chimpanzees in New York state. Wise wants a court to declare their captivity a violation of habeas corpus and have the apes moved to a sanctuary.

His aims aren’t as eccentric as they seem. When corporations are considered persons, it’s absurd to suggest intelligent animals can’t be. It’s an intelligence we see firsthand when Wise visits chimps who use sign language or computers to communicate in complex sentences.

The film functions as a courtroom drama. It’s fascinating to watch the preparation that goes into building a legal case to accomplish something outside the realm of settled law. 

At one point, during a practice mock trial, one of his judges grills him on his position, and it’s evident how heavily the odds are stacked against him. In his actual trials, it’s astonishing the hoops judges jump through and the straw men his opponents construct to avoid making an unconventional ruling.

Pennebaker and Hegedus aren’t reinventing the documentary wheel here. That’s hardly a crime, but when you’re dealing with filmmakers who actually did break major ground in the medium, their choices seem safe. The film begins in media res for no apparent reason, for instance. These problems aren’t really problems, and it’s hardly a complaint to say Unlocking the Cage is merely very, very good.

Published in Volume 71, Number 5 of The Uniter (October 6, 2016)

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