The latest film from esteemed, Oscar-nominated documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The War Room”), “Unlocking the Cage” follows the efforts of animal rights lawyer and founder of The Nonhuman Rights Project Steven Wise in his legal quest to have the rights of personhood bestowed on chimpanzees. The idea is to use this somewhat vague legal concept as a means to combat the primates mistreatment at the hands of both medical research and amusement facilities. Anyone who’s owned a pet or has been to the movies and witnessed firsthand how much more people fear for the well-being of animals than their human counterparts might be surprised at the uphill battle Wise faces.
As Wise and his team make their case before a number of New York State judges (including in Rochester), they run into hurdles, not least of which is the fact that the chimpanzees they want to make the “face” of their particular case keep dying, adding a certain urgency to their cause. Despite their best intentions, the judges they encounter are uneasy about extending the definition of the law in ways never before considered. There’s compelling in-depth arguments about what “personhood” means and what rights it brings with it. Wise also runs headlong into the “slippery slope” argument: if we allow a chimpanzee to be given personhood, who’s to say where that would end? Would a chicken also deserve the same rights, should someone decide to makes a case for it?
Wise wants to expand the writ of habeas corpus, used in wrongful imprisonment cases, to have those same rights extended to higher-level animals, who scientific evidence suggests have awareness that they are in captivity. In contrast to the broader methods of many environmentally-focused documentaries, “Unlocking the Cage” immerses itself in the intricacies of the law, and the back and forth discussions -- as well as the ethical questions they raise -- are fascinating.