Animal Liberation: Unlocking the Cage

A chimpanzee named Merlin, as seen in UNLOCKING THE CAGE, a film by Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker. Courtesy of Pennebaker Hegedus Films/HBO. A First Run Features Release.

Unlocking the Cage
Directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Opens May 25 at Film Forum

Even the staunchest vegan can see the potential for humor in Unlocking the Cage, a documentary portrait of animal rights lawyer Steven Wise, his Nonhuman Rights Project team and his fights on behalf of chimpanzee clients. However, directors Chris Hegedus and D.A Pennebaker play it very straight. Unlocking the Cage isn’t entirely humorless, but it requires the spectator to agree with the idea that “sentient non-humans,” such as apes, whales and elephants, should have the same rights as a human child, particularly the right not to be trapped in a cage and put on display.

Hegedus and Pennebaker stick to the direct cinema format that’s served the latter since the 60s (mostly famously in Dont Look Back, prior to his personal and professional partnership with Hegedus)  There are no interviews between the directors and their subject. Nor is there any voice-over. Instead, a handheld camera follows Wise and his legal team around. If Wise has an Achilles’ heel, it’s that he seems to live in an echo chamber, where everyone’s life was changed by reading Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation: his views on animal rights are challenged only by a few TV interviewers, lawyers and judges. Not surprisingly, the most common objection is his tendency to liken animals to human slaves. His struggle to find the ideal case takes up most of the first half of Unlocking the Cage; three chimps die before he can testify on their behalf. (That in itself says something about the dangers of captivity.)

Unlocking the Cage is a populist courtroom drama, akin to Michael Mann’s The Insider. The directors are canny about structuring their film as a narrative. Even if the facts of Wise’s case don’t lead to an unambiguously happy ending, they use news and web clips to suggest his side is winning anyway. It’s not exactly dishonest, as Hegedus and Pennebaker are frank about the odds facing Wise and the depths to which those who wish to exploit animals will go. Still, it forces a complex story in a fairly simple, optimistic framework. All the same, Wise’s passion is inspiring—a far cry from the vulgarity and misogyny PETA often indulges in—and the film is commendable for taking it so seriously.

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