A pioneering and hugely unlikely legal case might seem like an ideal focus for legendary filmmaking duo Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, whose partnership is perhaps best known for the apex in political campaign docs, The War Room. However, that film was more about illuminating the mechanics of a dark art, which is a natural fit for their brand of unobtrusive observation. Their new film, Unlocking the Cage, purports to be a portrait of an individual, while in reality it lacks the journalistic rigour to win over the unconverted.
In truth, it comes down in part to Hegedus and Pennebaker’s brand of vérité documentary which takes a passive and watchful approach to unfolding drama. In something like Pennebaker’s masterpiece Don’t Look Back, this style allows the atmosphere to seep from the screen, leading to an intoxicating non-narrative profile of Bob Dylan and the scene of which he was a part. In this instance, it means getting a vivid sense of advocacy, but little analysis of methods, motivations, or the unbiased wider context that should augment the central assertion. That assertion revolves around how animals are categorised by the American legal system, in particular, more socially and psychologically advanced animals such as great apes, elephants and whales.
The tireless lawyer leading the charge is Steven Wise. Wise’s legal practice has been representing animals for decades, ever since Wise read Peter Singer’s famous philosophical treatise and manifesto Animal Liberation. For much of that time, Wise has harboured the desire to do more than just represent dogs and cats interest, but to challenge the way that self-aware animals are classified. Wise’s particular argument revolves around the level of psychological consciousness in the animals – in that they not only are aware of their identity and that they have a mind, but they are also aware that others have a mind too. “If you’re a human you have rights; if you’re not human you don’t,” explains Wise, “We’re saying that’s wrong.” It’s an emotive issue and only becomes more so when chimpanzees are introduced who can communicate through computers.
There will be few people who can argue in favour of the appalling conditions that the selected chimp plaintiff are subjected to. The problem is that after this point, as Wise and his admirable volunteer colleagues at the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP) take on the establishment they lack any robust cross-examination. Wise claims they’re just trying to “kick the door open” but the filmmakers never really get to the bottom of various niggling issues, not least why the NhRP aren’t pursuing animal welfare reform rather than their bold ‘Habeas Corpus’ strategy. Nor do they manage to inject proceedings with any more drama than Wise himself manages to. Not that they need to in order to play well for audiences who are already on board, it may just have given Unlocking the Cage greater breakout potential akin to Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Blackfish.
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Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson