Award-winning husband-and-wife documentarians D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have been collaborating for forty-five years, working on films about such subjects as Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign (The War Room), Carol Burnett (Moon over Broadway), soul music (Only the Strong Survive), pastry chefs (Kings of Pastry), and Elaine Stritch (Elaine Stritch at Liberty). For their latest film, Unlocking the Cage, they spent three years following animal rights lawyer Steven M. Wise, the president and founder of the Nonhuman Rights Project, as he sought to establish “personhood” for several chimpanzees in order to free them from their caged existence and move them to more acceptable animal sanctuaries. Wise and his team, Natalie Prosin and attorneys Elizabeth “Liddy” Stein and Monica Miller, scour the internet searching for chimpanzees to represent as well as sanctuaries where the animals can be released. (The Nonhuman Rights Project focuses on great apes, elephants, and such cetaceans as dolphins and whales because of their autonomy, intelligence, and emotional capacity.) The concept is fascinating, and the film hits its high points when Pennebaker and Hegedus show some of the chimpanzees interacting with humans in compelling ways, watching television or figuring something out on a computer. Unfortunately, far too much of Unlocking the Cage deals with often murky legal discussions and courtroom arguments that drag on and on.
While some people believe the animals must be freed, others think it’s a slippery slope and that the species are already protected by animal welfare laws. Also, although Wise certainly means well, he is so obsessed with finding clients (including Merlin, Kiko, Hercules, Leo, and Tommy) and changing their legal status via the writ of Habeas Corpus that he doesn’t necessarily fully consider the animals’ current situations and relationships with their owners, instead assuming that what he wants for the chimpanzees is the only option, which doesn’t always appear to be the case. Wise, who was inspired by Peter Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, meets with primatologists, visits zoos and sanctuaries, gives talks and lectures, is interviewed by the media, and makes his stand in court, and while he raises some genuinely important questions, the answers are too often bogged down in legalese and repetition. A presentation of Pennebaker Hegedus Films, First Run Features, and HBO Documentary Films, Unlocking the Cage opens at Film Forum on May 25, with Hegedus, Pennebaker, and Wise on hand for Q&As following the 7:00 shows on May 25, 26, and 27 and the 4:40 show on May 28.