Unlocking the Cage

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
Unlocking the Cage
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Animal rights lawyer and activist Steven Wise has been fighting for non-human rights for 30 years. In 2011, he and his team at the NonHuman Rights Project upped the ante when they filed law suits on behalf of four captive chimpanzees. Their goal was to prove to the courts that animals have the rights of a “person” in “Unlocking the Cage.”

I have a new hero in Steven Wise and his dedicated team of professors, attorneys and law school students who have spent years fighting for the rights of the animals that cannot fight for themselves in a court of law. Directors Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, essentially, divide the film into two distinctive parts.

For about the first half of “Unlocking the Cage,” Steven Wise and the members of the NhRP search the state of New York for suitable “clients” to present before the court. The search has its highs, when they find Merlin and Reba at the Bailiwick Zoo in Catskill, NY, and lows, when they learn that Reba died and, shortly after, Merlin does, too. The team faces an uphill battle to find the right chimp to represent – they keep dying. Eventually, of course, they do find their clients.

Once the search process is over, “Unlocking the Cage” shifts gears to the actual litigation for the court. At this point, the legal drama unfolds in a succession of appearances in, first, the NY lower courts, then, all the way to the state Supreme Court. If you want to know how this drama (and, it is a drama) turns out, do the research. Or, better still, see “Unlocking the Cage,” it is a moving experience. I give it an A-.

For decades, animal rights lawyer Steven Wise took on individual cases on the behalf of cats and dogs, but with 160 animals being killed with every beat of his heart he decided to reach higher.  Along with his team, the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP), Wise began to fight for personhood rights for cognitively complex animals like elephants, chimpanzees and dolphins.  In December 2013, Wise and his legal team filed three lawsuits using writs of habeas corpus to attain the release of four chimpanzees.  Wise is "Unlocking the Cage."

If you've been noticing more animal rights laws passing lately, Wise, who received national media coverage for his efforts, more than likely has a lot to do with it.  Part distressing coverage of the animals Wise is trying to help, part fascinating courtroom legal debate, codirectoring couple Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker ("The War Room"), like Wise, keep their eyes on the prize and deliver a richly rewarding documentary.

'We may be the only lawyers on earth whose clients are all innocent' reads the tag line for the Animal Legal Defense Fund poster seen in Wise's home office.  The filmmakers then follow Wise as he searches for candidates to push his agenda.  Merlin and Reba are chimpanzees at the Bailiwick Zoo, a facility which also offers paintball.  They find Merlin alone and severely depressed three days after Reba's death.  Later, Wise's team member Natalie Prosin returns only to find a bear in his enclosure, Merlin, too, having passed away.  They will continue to be frustrated, especially with the sad case of Tommy, the chimp who starred in "Project X" and is now kept caged inside and alone with only an old TV for company.

We're also given amazing evidence of just how intelligent these fellow creatures are, from chimps using computers to conversing with researchers using sign language.  (Although we see Wise asking researchers for their assistance as courtroom witnesses, the fact that these researchers will lose their subjects should he be successful is not addressed.)

Eventually the team settle on Hercules and Leo, two chimps in an ambulatory study at Stony Brook and the legal drama begins.  Wise has to sidestep many pitfalls in his arguments, judges frequently citing the animal welfare laws which have failed him in the past.  One judge takes exception to Wise's comparison of the apes' situation to those of slaves (he also cites former laws which excluded similar rights for women and children).

The documentary couldn't be more timely with the Cincinnati Zoo's shooting of Harambe and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders's fight to change a broken system from within.  Heartbreaking and heartening in equal measure, "Unlocking the Cage" is a profound examination of animal rights issues and a stirring portrait of a heroic activist.

Grade: A-
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