Unlocking the Cage: Meeting of the Mammals

"Of all of our movies, this one changed my life," Chris Hegedus said, introducing her new documentary, Unlocking the Cage at a special HBO screening prior to its theatrical release at Film Forum this week. That's a lot to claim from the filmmaker pair, Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker who together made films from inside "the war room" during the Clinton campaign of 1992 to the pastry chefs of France. The cute and cuddly gorillas at play in Unlocking the Cage's opening situate you at once in a riveting film that follows an endearing nonhuman animal rights advocate, Steven Wise, into the courtrooms to fight for animal personhood.

This fight is not the same as looking after their welfare, Wise makes perfectly clear, standing before one judge after another. Inspired by Peter Singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation, he's going farther to establish their rightful legality, showing that animals as sentient beings are capable of complicated thought, emotion, and language. Situated in zoos, trapped in labs and used for research, their rights to "habeas corpus," the right not to be imprisoned, is violated. Leavening this pursuit, Wise's sense of humor and decency prevails.
Courtroom scenes feature incredulous judges -the Pennebakers had unusual access--as Wise makes the case for how life might be for animals. A sanctuary where they can live with autonomy is an attractive option. The film focuses on chimpanzees and gorillas although his work will extend to elephants and dolphins. One story involves Tommy who was sold from upstate New York to a roadside zoo in Northern Michigan, and is now missing. As Wise's organization continues to fight, you can ponder: the pursuit of personhood for the powerless bespeaks a form of menschlechkeit; it takes a certain spirit to look at the status quo for animals and ask, what is wrong with this picture? You can understand why making this philosophical leap with Steven Wise has changed Hegedus' life.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.