Breaking Through The Bars: Hegedus & Pennebaker Go Ape In Court With Animal Rights Activist Steven Wise
Having long ago been crowned the king and queen of the concert doc and the direct cinema political campaign, Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker have spent the last decade or so cinematically exploring new interests near and dear to their heart in the Meilleur Ouvrier de France in Kings of Pastry and animal rights with their latest, Unlocking The Cage. Quite possibly their most politically overt work as a pair, they’ve been following Steven Wise, an animal rights lawyer and president of the Nonhuman Rights Project, as he attempts to officially file for a writ of habeas corpus (literally meaning to free the body) in the name of several domestically imprisoned chimpanzees. The unheard of pretext for such a motion would render chimpanzees themselves a legal (rather than biological) person, and thus should have the same basic right to freedom as a human child might possess. With Wise in the driver’s seat and bubbling with excitement about his case, his odds, his moral standing and the possible legal implications of his success for all sorts of intelligent animals, the film settles squarely in observational activist doc territory, embracing the good natured hopefulness of the irresistible protagonist at its center.
After receiving a paperback copy of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation, which argues against the idea of a divide between human and nonhuman animals and thus all animals should be treated alike because of their shared ability to experience suffering, Wise abandoned his traditional legal practice to focus his attention on animal rights within the framework of American law. Long treated as a laughing stock, Wise is tailed into Harvard by Hegedus and Pennebaker where he regularly lectures on animal rights and intelligence, followed by a press tour that sees him appear on every major network and talk show, spreading the good word of his high profile case featuring his unusual plaintiffs, a pair of former showbiz chimpanzees name Tommy and Kiko, now condemned to a life behind bars, locked away from the enrichment of a natural environment and socialization.
Before they’ve settled on their complainants, we follow Wise and his team as they perform various acts of espionage, visiting poorly maintained zoos, ape obsessed private establishments and reindeer rental outfits to scope out varying degrees of negligence in hopes of finding the perfect plaintiff. The obviously lonesome and neglected chimps Wise encounters live in highly confined spaces without proper socialization or cognitive stimulation – a world away from the massive open spaces of the Save the Chimps sanctuary in Ft. Pierce, Florida that Wise dreams of having these animals placed in.
Following these forays into western New York and beyond, Unlocking The Cage rotates between the court room drama of presenting the unprecedented case before apprehensive judges, the press outings that follow each escalation in legal notoriety and the waiting game of court rulings, which leads to aesthetic repetition that both wears a bit thin while narratively compounding the tensions of Wise’s possible success through his contagious, ceaseless optimism. Hegedus and Pennebaker implicitly endorse Wise’s campaign to legally legitimize the mental cognition of chimps and other species of intelligent beings, highlighting the scientific studies which he cites in court while cutting to filmed cases in which apes clearly display high levels of intelligence and even expressing a deep sense of empathy with the use of human sign language. Make no mistake, this is supremely likable observational activism set squarely on the world stage of American law. Cinematically inventive it is not, but with Tommy and Kiko’s well being in the balance and the famed animal rights lawyer leading the charge, it’s hard not to get swept up in the fervor. Free the Chimps! Free the Chimps!
Reviewed on January 24th at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival – Documentary Premieres Program. 91 Min.