Unlocking The Cage offers an intimate look at an unprecedented battle to obtain the status of legal personhood for animals. Co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, the film follows attorney Steven Wise and his legal team, The Non Human Rights Project, into the courtroom and behind the scenes of this truly historic crusade.
From Don’t Look Back to The War Room and Startup.com, the acclaimed filmmakers are famous for their unobtrusive documentary style. One of the pioneers of Direct Cinema, Pennebaker was honored with a Lifetime Academy Award and Oscar nominated Hegedus received the DGA Outstanding Directional Achievement award.
While the idea may seem incongruous to some, the narrative cleverly incorporates scientific evidence from primatologists around the world and affidavits demonstrating that chimpanzees are extraordinarily cognitive complex creatures. Selecting his clients from captive chimpanzees in roadside zoos or private homes, Wise argues that they have the capacity for limited personhood rights using writs of habeas corpus [A writ of habeas corpus is used to bring a prisoner or other detainee (…) before the court to determine if the person’s imprisonment or detention is lawful. Wex Legal Dictionary].
This dramatic course of action may forever alter not only the way we perceive animals, but is also at the heart of their destiny, paving the ground against animal abuse.
“It’s a hell of a war,” declares Wise. “It’s going to be a lot of battles in the war, but it’s time to begin.”
CYNTHIA BIRET: It’s an unusual cause to pick up for an attorney, but it’s even more unusual for filmmakers to decide to document this story, as it might take many years to unfold.
CHRIS HEGEDUS: I know, and that was some of the challenges we had to face. Unfortunately I was a little bit ignorant about the law and did not realize that it would go on for so long. Plus, in the course of making the film our daughter decided to change careers and apply to law school, and ended up being away for three years.
BIRET: How did you originally hear about Stephen Wise?
HEGEDUS: A friend of ours, Rosadel Varela, introduced us to him. She became a producer on the film and she brought him to our office because Steve was about to undertake his life’s passion and actually tried to mount one of these cases in front of a court. He would argue that an animal should be considered a legal person and we just thought that it just sounded really bizarre. It was an interesting idea, and we liked Steve — he was very serious — so we decided to go on a journey with him.
D.A. PENNEBAKER: Well, he was a dog saver, and what he did mostly, even though he was a lawyer of course, he defended dogs. The problem with dogs is that when they get in trouble, they put them away, and he would go in and defend the dog. He told me this thing that most endeared me to him, and that’s when he said: “I only lost one case.” I loved him right away for that.
BIRET: Wise is a little bit of an anti-hero: He is a man with a passion, but he is also very down-to-earth.
HEGEDUS: In fact, Stephen Wise is not a matinee idol, number one; and number two, he’s a little bit like this cartoon character, Mr. Magoo, who is just kind of bumbling along! Steve has that aspect to him and everybody who works with him closely knows that his shirt is always out, untucked, and his tie is crooked, and this and that, but at the same time he’s one of those brilliant people that are not going to give up. The setbacks won’t stop him. He just had this determination to just keep going on and this total confidence in what he has been doing for years. You know, there is always a point in the beginning of this film where I think, “Oh yeah, I will do this film,” and I knew I was right after I went to see him teach, and he turned to me in the car and said: “When I first walked into a courtroom people used to bark at me.” I thought, wow, this guy has gone through decades of this and he still feels that he has to pursue his goal. That type of conviction in people is something that makes you want to stick around.
BIRET: Wise also brings up corporate personhood in his argument: Legally, animals are denied any rights, but corporations have equal rights as a person.
HEGEDUS: Yes, they are considered persons.
BIRET: Connecting the scenes about cognitive complexity with the main storyline opens our minds to a deeper understanding of animal sensibility.
PENNEBAKER: It bothers me that we grow up with a sense that wild animals of all sorts are really like teddy bears and that they are something that we can shoot and simply watch them disappear. However we look at the extinction of animals and climate change not as a loss but as something to sell stories about. And I think that animals are such a real part of our lives, or culture, that they should be protected as much as people. When you go to places like sanctuaries, you see the people running the sanctuaries treated by chimpanzees like they are their friends. I think in the future we will either have to understand this and deal with it in some ways, or life will change in a way that we can’t presumably imagine and we will be the losers.
It’s truly a life-changing experience to see a chimpanzee who can do American Sign Language and who actually speaks to you! I mean, we can’t speak their language but they have learned to speak a language of ours. — Chris Hegedus
BIRET: What influenced your decision to use suspenseful music in the style of a detective movie?
HEGEDUS: We tried to make it a little suspenseful so you would really want to know at the end of the film what would legally happen. I think one of the challenges for me was not dumbing-down Steve’s case but making the idea of what he was trying to do with habeas corpus simple enough and interesting enough, that people would want to follow the ins and outs of every legal battle.
BIRET: What’s interesting is that there are other movies like The Cove, for example, that promote a call to action, whereas your story focuses on Steve’s work. Did you first record everything and then made all the decisions in post-production, or did you have some type of a plan when you started?
HEGEDUS: For most of our stories, we look for people who are passionate about something and are taking a risk to pursue that life’s goal. Steve really fell into that category so we followed him during this journey. He would go into a court and argue that an animal should be a legal person, and because it’s real life you never know what’s going to happen. While I was following Steve around and filming him, we went and found the first chimpanzee plaintiff, Merlin, who was in a horrible roadside Zoo and I thought: “That’s it!” hoping that this was our story and that Merlin will end up in a sanctuary. And then Merlin died, and then the next plaintiff died, and Steve eventually decided to go after whatever remaining chimpanzees he could find in New York State which was a little bit of a challenge because they tend to be more chimpanzees in states that tend to have warmer climate; but these states may not have the type of law that was conducive for Steve to argue his habeas corpus case.
BIRET: The assemblage of pauses and quiet reactions are a far cry from a gung-ho collage of small victories and setbacks, and there is a safe distance in reporting which steers away from a sanctimonious tone while anchoring the narrative in reality. What was your approach at incorporating the segments of the scientists studying the cognitive capacity of chimpanzees in the film? Did Steve suggest these specific interviews?
PENNEBAKER: Steve actually decides when and how the case should go, and our role really is to follow him; and we followed but we did not aim to ask him a few questions; in fact we almost never ask any questions. It’s kind of a general strategy that if you follow somebody who is doing something that interests you, sooner or later you’ll find out how or why he does it.
HEGEDUS: Steve had already previously met some of the different scientists who do the cognitive studies with animals, such as Kanzi’s owner, Savage (primatologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh). He kind of wanted to double back up the story with these scientists because that was part of his argument for his case. Although there is a little bit of animal abuse in the film, because that’s at the heart of the issue, I also wanted people to understand that animals should have rights because they’re like us in many ways and that they are highly intelligent beings. It was very interesting for me to visit chimpanzees and to be able to communicate with them. It’s truly a life-changing experience to see a chimpanzee who can do American Sign Language and who actually speaks to you! I mean, we can’t speak their language but they have learned to speak a language of ours.
BIRET: While there are movies about prominent primatologists such as Jane Goodall for instance, there has never been a film that pushes the boundaries as far as this one.
HEGEDUS: While it was amazing to meet with them, it’s a catch-22 because most of these chimpanzees are 30 or 40 years old, and at the time they were first used for research; holding them captive and doing experiments to them was considered an okay thing to do.
These animals were taken from their mothers when they were tiny, and usually the mother was killed in the jungle where they can’t be taken back, because to put them back means they wouldn’t survive . . . and then [they are] treated like some kind of fungus in our world. That to me seems wrong. — D.A. Pennebaker
PENNEBAKER: They were brought up at the Space Program. I think what’s interesting is that even though they’re not considered human, of course they’re considered beasts; but the fact is that they learned to fly rockets and sometimes they overruled what they were told to do because the rocket was not functioning properly and they corrected it so in many ways they were very smart and should not be enslaved.
BIRET: This is the story of Enos, the chimpanzee who was sent into space and received either banana pellets or electric shocks to prompt him to manage commands. However the rocket malfunctioned and he heroically made the correct decisions albeit being submitted to dozens of shocks, proving his intelligence and yet remaining forever captive.
PENNEBAKER: Unlike dogs or cats, which for long periods of time have learned to be part of the human lifetime, these animals were taken from their mothers when they were tiny, and usually the mother was killed in the jungle where they can’t be taken back, because to put them back means they wouldn’t survive; so they were taken from their home in a way that they could not ever go back there, and then treated like some kind of fungus in our world. That to me seems wrong.
BIRET: You actually bring up a controversial comparison with the plight of slaves, women and children. Some people might get offended by it, but if you are questioning slavery for a human being, why not start looking at the mechanisms in place to enslave an animal.
HEGEDUS: It’s a controversial topic, but as you said Steve is not making a point of comparison between chimpanzee and women or whomever, he’s only using the legal precedence of beings that did not have full rights, and showing kind of a path in the law that can also be useful for great apes.
BIRET: I thought that it was very tastefully done actually.
HEGEDUS: Thank you.
BIRET: Were you previously familiar with Peter Singer’s “Animal Liberation”?
HEGEDUS: Yes, I was familiar with the book and his work, but I didn’t really know a lot about it; I mean both of us really loved animals and had dogs and cats. I understood Peter Singer as a philosopher, but I did not understand some of the distinctions between his work and some aspect of the animal rights movement that he was pursuing. I think that we are slowly realizing that creatures on this planet can be teachers and can be helpful to us.
BIRET: How many years did it take to make this film?
HEGEDUS: We spend around 3 years filming, but if you add the time promoting it and going to festivals before it actually went on the air, it ends up being a 4 years process.
BIRET: At what point did you decide to stop filming? This type of narrative may take years to unfold.
HEGEDUS: That is true, and it is hard to decide when to stop.
PENNEBAKER: And it is still going on!
HEGEDUS: Yes, in a very interesting way, but I think that what happened is that we wanted to follow the stories of each of the three chimpanzees, and when we got to the case of Hercules and Leo who were being brought up in the New York City state Supreme Court, we decided to follow that case. Then Judge Jaffe made her ruling which was really a historic ruling, to kind of ask the Assistant Attorney General of the state of New York why animals should not be considered a legal person, for that very narrow instance of habeas corpus that Steve was arguing. This was signaling a call out to “This should change!” and we thought that this would be a nice way to end our film.
BIRET: What are your next steps with this film?
HEGEDUS: Steven and the nonhuman rights project have been taking the film around to law school because that’s where he believes change can happen through the law. Other than that it’s broadcast widely around the world, and we sold it all around Europe and some parts of South America in Australia and it’s been doing that type of thing and here is been broadcast on HBO, and we showed it in a lot of festivals as well and try to get the word out as much as we can.
BIRET: Were you ever concerned about finding the right audience for this film?
HEGEDUS: I think we were a bit naive coming into it compared to a film before we did in France called King of Pastry, which was about a pastry chef competition. It is kind of a fluffy film but it’s also extremely suspenseful, and it’s very hard to get funding for these types of films because they’re not very virtuous; so I thought, okay, this one now is going to be virtuous, it’s about animal rights, so I should be able to fund it easily; but it was just as much of a challenge for us in the end to get funding because people think of human rights versus animal rights.
BIRET: He is using very strong arguments backed with an extensive amount of research from specialists in the field.
HEGEDUS: And most importantly, these judges really understood the types of arguments that Steve was doing — because there are judges out there that just don’t get it at all, and don’t even argue correctly, and just throw the case out on emotional reasons. He’s traveling all around the world, from Asia to India to South America, and governments everywhere are really taking notice. He’s even spoken to the Senate in France, which is a country that’s quite interested in creating change that we haven’t caught up to here.
BIRET: Indeed. The French Parliament recognized that pets are “living and feeling beings” instead of material property. Are you planning to catch up with Steve in another four years?
HEGEDUS: I would love to, because there is such a great group of people surrounding Steve on his journey, and he’s continued to take it off the ladder so to speak. He took the case of Tommy the chimpanzee to the very highest court in New York where he argued recently, and actually those judges did not declare Tommy a legal person either, sadly, but one judge wrote an opinion that was also very historic where he said, “Eventually this is going to change.” It has to, because of the science, the philosophy and the ethics behind what Steve is arguing in his many, many affidavits that he has from scientists and philosophers, and his arguments are just proving how animals are being treated, specially animals that are highly cognitive, like great apes, and that it has to change.
BIRET: A recent study indicated that there is only 3% of wild animals left as a consequence of environmental change and factory farming.
HEGEDUS: Yes, I know. That’s depressing. In the end, agricultural farming is also killing us and our environment. I’m an executive producer on a film where somebody’s dealing with the subject of cultured meat, which is an interesting prospect for the future.
BIRET: Would you like to talk about your upcoming projects?
HEGEDUS: I did a short film that was part of a series on women artisans around the world. The story that I did it was about girls in a foster home in New York; they had been taught to crochet and they sell these very unique crochet items at major stores such as Nordstrom or American. It’s a really compelling look at the foster care in our country which is a very scary thing because it’s a sad situation and that addresses our values and how we deal with poverty, and it’s all wrapped up in a little story about crochet. Right now we are also trying to deal with our huge archive; Pennebaker has been making films since the 1950s, and I started making films with him in the 1970s, so we have a lot of film! He was part of engineering some of the first synchronous sound for cameras, allowing people to go out in the world and film things while they are not all hooked together by wires. The challenge for us as opposed to the Hollywood film industry is that we save our outtakes because we believe that those can be valuable to historians, to geographers, to fashion designers, so we have a lot of history in film within our archives and we’re looking for a place to put it, a room where it can be exhibited and used as research and what not.
BIRET: A few last words about this film?
PENNEBAKER: We still eat a lot of animals. People’s diets all over the world to some extent depend on animals, and I think that the time is coming in the future where we won’t do that anymore because there won’t be that many animals around, or people will stop eating animals and just start eating vegetation or something else. I think that until that time comes, you’re struggling against a majority of people who are not going to change their minds about animals very easily, so you have to show them in a way that they mean something for somebody for a good reason. And that’s why I thought this film was such a good story, because it has to do with the future.