Unlocking the Cage (Sundance Review)

By @DJansick
Unlocking the Cage (Sundance Review)

You may recall reading national headlines last year about a lawsuit being filed to grant basic rights to chimpanzees. With their newest documentary Unlocking the Cage, Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker follow the events leading to that first lawsuit. Animal rights lawyer Steven Wise believes it’s his moral responsibility to give fundamental rights to certain cognitively complex animals. He explains how chimpanzees (as well as 3 other species) have been scientifically proven to have self-aware human-life intelligence. They’re able to communicate, show emotions, as well as have an understanding of their own mind. Therefore, they’re autonomous creatures that shouldn’t be forced into imprisonment.

Those expecting the next Project Nim or Blackfish may be disappointed that Unlocking the Cage remains largely a legal drama, spending the majority of its time in courtrooms and clarifying legal speak. There’s no question that the subject of this ruling is monumental; breaking down the legal barrier that separates animals from humans has never been done before. Future generations may look back and wonder what it was like to live in an era where this was tolerated.

In that respect, the documentary doesn’t feel as rewarding as it should. Maybe that’s because most of the emphasis is on our monotonous court system and not on the animals or even the background of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Or maybe it seems unsatisfying because it’s not able to tell the whole story. Unlocking the Cage quotes Winston Churchill by saying this case is just the “end of the beginning,” but it also happens to describe the documentary since it feels like the first part of a two-part story. Hopefully, Hegedus and Pennebaker’s efforts will help bring more awareness and interest in protecting nonhuman rights.


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