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Unlocking the Cage

Documentary following animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. Steve and his legal team are making history by filing the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal from a thing with no rights to a person with legal protections. It is an intimate look at a lawsuit that could forever transform our legal system, and one man's lifelong quest to protect 'nonhuman' animals.

Supported by affidavits from primatologists around the world, Steve maintains that, based on scientific evidence, cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights. Filing lawsuits used to free humans from unlawful imprisonment, Wise argues on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State.

The film captures a monumental shift in our culture, as the public and judicial system show increasing receptiveness to Steve's impassioned arguments.

Release date:

1 hour, 30 minutes

Last on

Wed 31 May 2017 23:00

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker answer the Storyville Q&A

Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker answer the Storyville Q&A
What is more important, story or character?
Character emerges from story. Story is dependent on character.
So both can be equally important.

What made you first want to explore the subject?
Curiosity. One of the privileges of filming a real life story is that we get dropped into worlds that we want to know more about and often would never have been able to witness without a camera. Also, we look for people who are passionate and are taking a risk to pursue a life’s goal. The moment we met Steve Wise we knew he was one of these people. And it helped that he was about to start his journey – when filming stories about real life it is best if you can be there at the beginning.

How long did it take to get the film off the ground?
We have camera equipment and Chris shoots, so soon after we met Steve we decided to film him teaching a class at Harvard Law. What took time was following the story. There were so many challenges along the way. What began as one lawsuit, became three lawsuits. We were naïve and had no idea that these cases would take years to go through the court system. Also funding was a huge challenge. The BBC was an early supporter and we applied for grants but it was clear that we needed more funds.  That’s when we mounted a Kickstarter campaign to fund filming the final court appeals. Luckily nine months later HBO came on board. So it was a process all along the way.

What were you most surprised to learn in the course of production?
Chris: I was surprised by how quickly I came to agree with Steve Wise’s view that a cognitively-complex animal, such as a great ape, should be considered a legal person with a right that would protect them from abuse. What initially seemed like a novel, if not far fetched idea became exactly what I felt should be done. My conversion came after filming Kanzi, a bonobo who was one of the first animals taught to communicate with humans by using symbols on a computer.  Kanzi truly understood English and what I was saying to him. These animals are extraordinary.

Penny: I was surprised by just how simple the law is but how hard it is to make it serve you.

What have been the differences in reception to the film in countries it has now travelled to?
Unlocking The Cage has just begun its journey to festivals. One thing that is certain is that there is a growing interest in animal rights. The film was invited to screen at festivals in the US, Canada, England, Switzerland, Israel, South Korea, Australia, and South America. So there has definitely been a seismic shift in the way we are viewing animals.

Which documentary has most inspired you?
Pennebaker  - Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North
Hegedus – Pennebaker’s “Dont Look Back”

Favourite Website/blog?
We don’t have a favourite.

Person you’d most like to interview (living or dead?)
Pennebaker – Bix Beiderbecke
Hegedus – Bessie Smith

Best piece of filmmaking advice you’ve ever been given?
Pennebaker – Frances Flaherty’s wife: “Use the camera as a device to explore”
Hegedus – Robert Drew: After apologizing that he didn’t have a job for me, he said “Go see Pennebaker.” I did and the rest is history.

Best piece of filmmaking equipment you can’t live without?

The camera

If money was no object, what is your dream documentary subject?
Pennebaker – A film on the evolution of the solar system
Hegedus – I’d still like to make a film where you watch a person become President.

Favourite film of all time?
Pennebaker – Michael Powell “I Know Where I’m Going”
Hegedus – Fellini “81/2”

Most difficult access?
It was a real challenge to film in the NY State court system in Unlocking The Cage. But probably the most challenging access was for The War Room. We never really got the access to Clinton that we wanted -- which to watch Clinton become President.  In the end we settled for James Carville and George Stephanopoulos and we hung out in their war room. We can’t really complain, they were a brilliant team and Carville was a great character - he was constantly amusing. But if Clinton had lost the election, we would have had a very unsalable film about the losing campaign staff.  So right until the end we were still hoping to be with Bill Clinton.

Best recent read?
Pennebaker – Elia Kazan “A Life”
Hegedus – Edmund de Waal’s “The Hare with the Amber Eyes”


Role Contributor
DirectorChris Hegedus
ProducerChris Hegedus
DirectorDA Pennebaker
Series EditorNick Fraser