Unlocking the Cage

Renowned filmmakers D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus follow determined animal rights activist Steven Wise into the courtroom for an unprecedented battle that seeks to utilize the writ of habeas corpus to expand legal “personhood” to include certain animals. Wise’s unusual plaintiffs—chimpanzees Tommy and Kiko, once famed showbiz stars—are now living in filth, struggling to survive. Wise and his impassioned legal team take us into the field, revealing gripping evidence of such abuse and plunging us into the intricacies of their case as they probe preconceived notions of what it means to be a non-human animal.


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  • ★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd

    Fascinating if flawed documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, that has most of the contours of an advocacy documentary yet plays out in a less strident register than you might expect. Following the lawyer Stephen Wise in his quest to grant legal personhood rights to great apes, it seems, from my point of view, solidly on Wise's side, but it never forces the audience onto that side. Wise gets the space to clarify and refine his theme - he's not, despite the tenor of the media coverage, saying that we should give gibbons all the rights of humans. We're also given space to wonder whether all these clips of chimpanzees performing karate are really evidence of animal intelligence, or evidence of animal mimicry.

    That said, there is one remarkable piece of footage that stopped me in my tracks. A gorilla watches a film clip where children are taken away from their mother, and turns to the camera observing it to begin signing. It gets "sad", which, okay, could just be the animal understanding what's expected of it. Then it gets "mother", showing that it actually understands the plot of the clip. Then it keeps going, coming up with lists of synonyms for "sad" and "trouble" which prove that - at the very least - it understands how these words are part of a grouping. It's a truly remarkable - perhaps historic - moment, and the whole film is worth watching if only to see it.

  • ★★★★ review by Matt Thomas on Letterboxd

    A fascinating legal argument which, although a little one-sided, allows for the full exploration of all sides of the debate. Will create several talking points.

  • ★★★★½ review by Ray on Letterboxd

    Should chimpanzees, other apes, elephants, sea mammals ala dolphins and orcas, have some elements of legal personhood, particularly the right to not be unwillfully imprisoned in captivity?

    Now, with your almost-certainly negative answer in mind, consider these things. To start with, many things in this world that are not humans do have human rights, explicitly; things like corporations, boats, what have you. Scientific terms and ideas are bandied about, things asserting these animals have an understanding of how their day to day life flows from one to the next, ideas like autonomy and consciousness of their own mind and the minds of others. In this film, there's footage of a chimpanzee who can, after looking at a screen with roughly fifteen numbers on it for legitimately like a second and a half (count out that amount of time, if you would), whereupon they're covered up, press the covered-up numbers in numerical order. There is likewise footage of that chimpanzee signing for milk he wants and when pressed can assert that milk is white. The movie documents countless times when we've treated them as human analogs, especially with regards to the space program, both in popular culture and actually factually shooting them into space. A gorilla at watches what's asserted as "her favorite movie" and, at one point, turns away during a scene in which a mother is saying goodbye to her son, signing many synonyms for "sad," and likewise the sign for "mother."

    Now, consider again: should they have some legal pieces of personhood?

    If you are at least a little less certain, I think you have a very good shot of finding this documentary invigorating, as I very much did. There's a corollary to my oft refrain of "I don't like being the choir preached to," i.e. there must be some kind of inherit merit to a documentary (or any film, really) truly evoking a viewpoint I don't inherently hold. I have a really powerful-seeming case of such coming up in the docket, but this was a nice little test run and as far as test runs can go it went really damn well. More dismissive takes on the movie deride it for being an "issue doc" but it elevates itself above basically every other issue documentary I've ever seen pretty effortlessly in the ways I find others so dire. Not all of them, mind you; pictures of chimpanzees are hardly uncommonly shown for easy sympathy, the score is as schmaltzy as any other (not maudlin, luckily, but still way overly cutesy), it's still probably is a little thin at a very short runtime.

    But it has a humor about itself, a lightness of tone that doesn't demand this be changed tomorrow lest the world fall apart. Wise, the lawyer fighting for the aforementioned animals' rights, believes this is a clear problem, one worth changing, but can carry that passion alongside an understanding that he has an uphill battle to fight, not only in court but in the public understanding. It takes away a shrill, insistent urgency so many issue documentaries strive for, it makes this watchable and fun in as many turns as it's intriguing. It does so through not digging solely into the muck of the problem, wallowing in the ills of these chimpanzees, but through chipping away at how to make the effective case legally that these rights ought to be given. You see them discuss precedents, possible hangups, their most compelling evidence, it has that sort of legal fleet-footed quality of any courtroom movie; Wise's first argument in front of the appeals court is honestly dynamite and hyper-watchable stuff.

    Most-so, though, it doesn't demand you agree. At one point, Wise is asked whether he believes he can win this specific case or whether he hopes to get more people asking questions, thinking about this question. His answer: "both." Do I agree with Wise's supposition? I don't know. I think there's incredibly compelling evidence on display at points here -- the aforementioned numbers test thing works infinitely better than it would in any non-visual medium, specifically because you see it happen twice in a row and can recognize how much so you yourself can't do it the second time anyway -- but I think that both the whole legal case might not be there and that there are legitimate arguments against this idea throughout, maybe none better than the idea that these chimps themselves, implicitly, cannot have asked for the advocacy Wise is offering them, and that might be an ironclad line right there.

    What Unlocking the Cage does, though, is ask that you consider your viewpoint. Do you think they shouldn't be given these rights because that's how things have always been? Do you think they shouldn't be given these rights because you find the idea inherently ridiculous? Do you think that they shouldn't be given these rights for the uncomfortable realities that demands you confront about how we have treated animals through the years? Do you think they shouldn't due to having seriously thought out the idea and having come to the conclusion they do not? Some combination of them, perhaps? It's an idea perfectly tailored to what I brought to the movie itself: it's easy to come up with an argument to support what you already believed, it's much harder to challenge your beliefs, to ask questions about why we do what we do and if we should perhaps do something else. It asks not that you give yourself over to it whole, but that you ask questions of yourself, even if they're hard or weird or unusual, understanding that to seriously question what we think we know is to move forward in how we grasp the world.

    A key line comes from Wise right toward the end: "Your honor, to say that no non-human animal has ever been the recipient of a writ of habeus corpus. Well, until [we] began filing these suits, no one had ever asked."

  • ★★★½ review by Josh Daws on Letterboxd

    My 400th new film of the year (I've reached my goal for the year!)

    ‘Unlocking the Cage’ is an engrossing, understatedly heartfelt and very interesting documentary that raises questions about concepts which I had never considered. I have a general rule of not holding strong opinions about controversial issues that do not directly involve me, mainly because I don’t really feel the right to hold an opinion in such cases. However, watching documentaries is somewhat forcing me to consider this, particularly regarding animal rights documentaries, in which, by its very nature, nobody is directly involved and everybody is representing or discussing somebody else’s interests. This is my second animal rights documentary after ‘Blackfish’ and both these films come from a very pro-animal rights viewpoint. It does seem unlikely for an anti-animal rights documentary to exist, but it’s nonetheless important to note that through watching these films my opinion is going to clearly be swayed in a certain direction. It does, however, seem to be an issue in which any sort of detailed knowledge will put you clearly in a certain way of thinking. This isn’t nearly as powerful, impassioned or convincing as ‘Blackfish’, but you do nonetheless sympathise with and back the cause of the animal rights activists once the detail of their logical reasoning becomes clear. I, at least, left it convinced of the idea that chimpanzees should have legal, if distinct, personhood. The pleasure of the film, however, is not being one over by their argument, but watching the way in which the legal arguments are discussed and fall into place. For me, therefore, it isn’t so much an animal rights documentary as a documentary about the mechanics of the American legal system that takes this particular angle and I found that totally fascinating.

  • ★★★★ review by bwestcineaste on Letterboxd

    I interviewed the directors: www.seventh-row.com/2016/02/09/unlocking-the-cage/

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