Unlocking the Cage
May 24, 2016. As a professor of sociology, I was intrigued by the new documentary “Unlocking the Cage.” The film, by famed husband and wife documentary filmmaking team DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (“The War Room,” among many others), is a compelling and fascinating portrait of animal rights lawyer Steven Wise who advocates for the freedom of cognitively advanced animals, in the case of this film, chimpanzees.
In my sociology classes, we talk about the term “cultural relativism,” which means looking at a culture from its own point of view. The opposite of “cultural relativism” is “ethnocentrism,” which means using one’s own culture as a yard stick against which to measure other cultures. “Ethnocentrism,” on the positive side, can re-affirm a culture’s values, but, on the negative side, it can lead to prejudice and discrimination. Of course, whenever I am discussing these, and other sociological terms, with my students, I have always assumed that we are talking about human cultures. “Unlocking the Cage” has given me a whole new perspective. As Wise points out, “Are you human? You have rights. If you’re not a human, you don’t, and we’re saying that’s wrong.” “They are autonomous creatures. They should be able to live autonomous lives.” This is “cultural relativism” on a whole new level.
Perhaps then, it is human culture (for lack of a better term) that has been “ethnocentric,” or, as Wise puts it, regarding his animal clients, “I can’t think of beings who are more brutalized than this in greater numbers and if I spend my life work on their behalf, I will have done more than anything I could do as a human lawyer.”
The film follows Wise as he prepares for, and goes through, various law suits to free different chimpanzees held in captivity. Wise recalls fellow lawyers barking at him as he entered court rooms. His legal team, calling themselves the Non-human Rights Project, believes that animals with human qualities, such as chimps, deserve basic rights, including freedom from imprisonment. They want to transform an animal from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with legal protections. After all, if corporations can be considered people…
“Unlocking the Cage” presents its issues clearly, without getting bogged down in “legalese.” Pennebaker and Hegedus followed Wise for three years, and their cameras always seem to be in the right places at the right times. The film is also nicely paced. Wise has been captured in some very dramatic court room showdowns, as well as nice moments with him at home, in his office and with his legal defense team. Wise comes across as a man who, though impassioned about what he does and believes, also has a sense of humor about it.
“Unlocking the Cage” is a thought provoking documentary about our society’s next possible frontier, or, as Wise says, “All we can do is kick the door open.”
“Unlocking the Cage” opens on May 25, 2016 at Film Forum (209 West Houston Street) www.filmforum.org. It will open nationally in June.
Unlocking the Cage, Directors, DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, 2016, First Run Features, 91 minutes