Film review: ‘Unlocking the Cage’, animals are persons too

Amy Robertson, Monash Journalism

“Are you human? You have rights. You’re not a human? You don’t.”

What would it mean for a chimpanzee to be granted personhood or have legal standing?

Award winning documentary team Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker’s (The War Room 1993, Town Bloody Hall 1979) documentary titled ‘Unlocking the Cage’, premiered at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival.

The film follows the U.S lawsuits of animal rights lawyer Steven Wise and his challenge to obtain legal personhood for non-human animals.

Unlocking the Cage is a work of animal advocacy. It is a powerful and emotive topic, which provides an interesting perspective of animal rights from a legal standpoint.

This animal rights lawyer is not advocating improved animal welfare laws, but is fighting for rights that are currently absent from the U.S legal system, namely, the right of bodily autonomy and liberty under the writ of habeas corpus. Wise attempts to achieve this by filing suit on behalf of individual chimpanzees.

In the film the crew follow Wise on his legal campaign, which involves lengthy court scenes and discussions among his legal team. Wise is also seen visiting captive chimpanzees he hopes to represent in court.

Hegedus and Pennebaker’s decision to film individual chimps in captivity, providing background information on their story, helped to individualise the issue and makes it easier for audiences to empathise.

There are heart breaking scenes of Tommy, the chimpanzee who lives in isolation in a small cage, with only a television for company.

Wise’s personhood status is intended for animals with a certain level of cognitive complexity – chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants.

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Steven Wise in Unlocking the Cage. Photo: First Run Features

Unlocking the Cage is not a discussion about whether non-human animals should have rights, but rather it’s a call to action to have certain animals recognised as legal entities as opposed to legal ‘things’.

It is designed to shift our worldview towards a deeper appreciation of the inner life and complexity of specific non-human animals. The film also challenges the anthropomorphic attitudes that enable us to draw a sharp divide between human and non-human.

In the film Wise’s courtroom challenge of extending personhood to non-human animals is unprecedented and somewhat controversial.

The footage and cinematography seems dry. There are a lot of scenes that involve Wise talking on the phone, driving his car, or sifting through papers – and the film is dully factual.

The legal points raised are fascinating and may act to generate awareness among the audience. However, Unlocking the Cage is not as emotionally gripping as it could have been and the court case remains unresolved.

Despite its inconclusive ending, the documentary will leave audiences with a sense of optimism and hope.

Rating: 3/5