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At Sundance, a Triumph for “Unlocking the Cage”

By Michael Mountain

Guest post by Michael Mountain

Two and a half years ago, the movie Blackfish shook the world with its story of how a killer whale in captivity was driven to kill his trainer, Dawn Brancheau, at SeaWorld Orlando. And nothing has been quite the same for SeaWorld ever since.

Now comes another movie, and the ramifications of this one may be even greater. Unlocking the Cage is the latest in a long line of great movies by the team of DA Pennebaker and his partner Chris Hegedus. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday to a packed house and a standing, cheering ovation. And it will be shown around the world on HBO in July.

Hegedus and Pennebaker’s signature style is to tell a compelling story about people who are passionate about what they do. Penny, as he’s known, was the pioneer of “cinema verit√©” in the 1960s. His earliest masterpiece, Don’t Look Back, told the story of Bob Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England. Following that came a movie about David Bowie, and then The War Room, a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. In 2012, Pennebaker won a Lifetime Achievement Oscar, and Chris Hegedus has won multiple awards for her work.

Unlocking the Cage tells the story of attorney Steven M. Wise, Founder and President of the Nonhuman Rights Project, who has spent 25 years putting together a plan to “punch through the legal wall that separates all humans from all other animals.” If that sounds like it might be a recipe for a rather dry documentary, it’s the genius of Pennebaker and Hegedus that what emerges is a gripping, rollicking adventure tale about one man’s struggle for justice.

The movie opens in a New York State appellate courtroom, where, for the first time in history, an attorney goes before a group of high court judges to argue that the “Great Writ” of habeas corpus should be applied on behalf of a chimpanzee, Tommy, who’s living in a small cage in a dark shed at a rundown trailer park.

Tommy, Wise tells the court, is a cognitively complex, autonomous being who should be recognized as having the legal right to bodily liberty so that he can be freed from captivity and taken to a sanctuary where he can live with other chimpanzees in a setting that’s as close to the wild as possible.

pennebaker-wise-hegedus-kpcw-012716Then we flash back 25 years to when Wise is studying the legal history of nonhuman animals, visiting a sanctuary in Florida where he hopes to send his first plaintiffs, and spending time at the Ape and Conservation Initiative in Iowa, where Kanzi, a bonobo chimp, communicates with him using lexigrams on a computer.

Once the team has chosen New York State for their first lawsuit, because of its advantageous habeas corpus precedents, the search is on to find a suitable plaintiff. But over and over, they come face-to-face with the heartbreaking reality of what happens to chimpanzees in captivity.

When Wise goes undercover to see two chimps, Merlin and Reba, at a roadside zoo, he learns that Reba has died and Merlin is crouched in a corner of his cage, deeply depressed, swaying back and forth. Three months later, Natalie Prosin, Wise’s right-hand person and executive director of the NhRP, goes back to check on Merlin, but the young chimp is nowhere to be seen. He, too, has died. And a few weeks later, another potential plaintiff, Charlie, who’s been living in a private home “sanctuary”, is also dead.

“We may be the only lawyers on earth whose clients are always innocent.”

These are sad but brief scenes that are integral to the story as they testify to the plight of all of these cognitively complex, autonomous animals who waste away in their cages. Pennebaker and Hegedus don’t indulge in the all-too-frequent animal rights tactic of throwing horrible footage at a captive audience. Their film is, more than anything, a pulsating courtroom drama about civil rights, fully in the tradition of those famous old movies that chronicle the quest for justice for slaves and disenfranchised women and children who are powerless in a world of might-makes-right.

In fact, Steven Wise comes across as the classic Jimmy Stewart-type character in his rumpled suit, tie askew, deceptively soft-spoken as he takes on a legal system that doesn’t even recognize our closest cousins as living beings with the right to their own lives.

(As a poster in his home office puts it: “We may be the only lawyers on earth whose clients are always innocent.”)

And so to the next act of the drama, as the team heads to court ‚Äď three courtrooms, in fact, with four plaintiffs: Tommy, still living in that small cage in a dark shed at a trailer park; Kiko, a family pet with a chain around his neck at a home that his owners call a “sanctuary”; and Hercules and Leo, who are on loan to Stony Brook University from the New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana for experiments in the origins of human locomotion.

I’ll stop the story there before giving away plot spoilers. Not that there’s any secret, if you’ve been following these cases, about what happens next. But again, Pennebaker and Hegedus are masters of telling a good story, so you’ll be glued to the screen and to an ending that echoes Wise quoting Winston Churchill after his first victory in World War Two:

“This is not the end,” he says. “It is not even the beginning of the end; but it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

Participants in the movie

Left-to-right at a reception after the premiere at Sundance: Kevin Schneider (now executive director of the NhRP); Dr. Lori Marino; Michael Mountain; Steven Wise; Monica Miller; and attorney Sarah Stone, who is preparing a lawsuit on behalf of one or more elephants.

Steven M. Wise is President and lead attorney of the Nonhuman Rights Project. He pioneered the study of animal rights law and developed the strategy of using legal personhood as a means for protecting animals.

Natalie Prosin was Executive Director of the NhRP throughout the preparation of the lawsuits and as they came to court.

Liddy Stein is New York counsel and staff attorney for the NhRP and also practices law in New York, focusing on animal rights, welfare, legislation and advocacy.

Monica Miller is the NhRP’s senior counsel, and also Senior Counsel at the American Humanist Association‚Äôs Appignani Humanist Legal Center.

Lori Marino gathered the scientific evidence on chimpanzee cognition and autonomy. She is the founder and Executive Director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy.

Michael Mountain acted as Communication Director for the NhRP. He is the former President of Best Friends Animal Society.

The Movie Makers: More information about the film and the team who made is it here.

Video Clips

“Unlocking The Cage” Trailer.

Merlin at the roadside zoo after the death of his companion, Reba.

Steve Wise meets Kanzi.

Pennebaker and Hegedus talk about the movie during a Kickstarter campaign.

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