Saturday, May 21, 2016

Civil rights & animal wrongs: Chris Hegedus & D.A. Pennebaker's doc, UNLOCKING THE CAGE

I don't think you have to be an animal rights activist or a PETA person to appreciate the new documentary, UNLOCKING THE CAGE, but I suspect you do have to care enough about animals not to want to see them abused -- particularly those species who have been proven to be "cognitively complex," as have chimps, dolphins, whales and elephants. (This last one was news to TrustMovies, who grew up believing the old saw that an elephant never forgets. Evidently they do a hell of a lot more than merely that.)

As directed by the prolific and interested-in-just-about-everything husband/wife team of Chris Hegedus (at left) and D.A.  Pennebaker (below) -- who've given us a fine bunch of documentaries from Town Bloody Hall through The War Room, Moon Over Broadway, Elaine Stritch at Liberty and more recently the delightful Kings of Pastry -- this new one is among the most moving of all of their work. As usual, though, the pair never attempts to jerk tears:
H & P are content to simply show -- and let their subjects tell. In this case those subjects include not just the "animal rights" lawyer Steven Wise (below) and his legal team, known as the Nonhuman Rights Project, but also a few of the animals (especially certain chimpanzees) for whom Wise and team are trying to obtain "limited personhood rights." Does this mean we must concede that these animals are the same as people? Not quite. Wise is quick to acknowledge the differences, while maintaining the need for greater protection via increased "rights."

"We're trying to change the way humans view nonhuman animals," the lawyer, shown above, declares right up front. He also acknowledges the work of Peter Singer as one of his major inspirations. And now that our own Supreme Court has acknowledged corporations -- and even, as the doc points out, business partnerships -- as "people," why not chimps? Well, first off, Mr. Silly, because the rich and the corporate won't get richer and more powerful by giving personhood to chimps, as they did via the personhood-to-corporations route.

And so Wise and his team -- supported by the research of international primatologists, as well as by evidence of the living conditions of several of these chimps, shown below (along with one bonobo, above) -- take to America's court system to get the job done. Talk about a Quixotic enterprise!

And yet, damned if that enterprise doesn't begin to get somewhere, after all. The road is uphill and hugely difficult (along the way the chimps that the team plans to use as clients keep dying off), but -- as the documentary shows us, rather in the manner of a low-key-but-enthralling courtroom tale -- things do begin to change.

One of the great things that the filmmaking team allows us to see is the competing viewpoints -- both of which are presented quite intelligently -- from the side of the current establishment invested in seeing that things do not change and from that of Wise and his little group.  One of the film's best scenes shows us a mock trial in which what our "hero" has to say in called into question. Especially interesting is how the team uses the writ of habeas corpus in its plan to convince the court. (As Wise points out, after one particular setback, "We're trying to expand the writ of habeas corpus [to include animals], and the court has responded by trying to cut the writ back for humans!"

There is irony aplenty here, but there is also, as the French might say, Liberty, Equality and (hmmmm...) Fraternity, too. By the film's finale, it is pretty amazing how convincing, moving and even kind of thrilling Hegedus and Pennebaker have made the Nonhuman Rights Project's cause.

From First Run Features in association with HBO Documentary Films, Unlocking the Cage, opens this Wednesday, May 25, at New York City's Film Forum, and will then expand nationally in June. Click here to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.

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