UNLOCKING THE CAGE
First Run Features
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Director: Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebacker
Written by: Chris Hegedus
Cast: Steven Wise, Natalie Prosin, Liddy Stein, Mary Lee Jensvold, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh,, David Favre
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 6/2/16
Opens: June 24, 2016
Did I hear correctly, that Steven Wise, a lawyer in his mid-60’s, stated that Peter Singer’s 1970s book Animal Liberation need be the only animal rights book in a home library? I could almost agree, since it was Singer, arguably one this country’s foremost philosophers of ethics,who got me thinking about the brutality in which our meat animals are being treated. Singer argued that an animal’s sentience, not its intelligence, is what should give them the right not to be eaten and not to have their all-too-brief lives subjected to imprisonment; pigs and cows raised for bacon and veal, and most chickens should not only have room to move around but should simply not exist at all as mere objects to titillate our tongues..
Steven Wise, who sports a paunch (I hope not enriched with animals), has been involved in an original project for years, agreeing with Singer but taking a different but concurring point of view. Intelligence, and not just sentience, counts; and that those animals that have an intelligence quite comparable to that of human beings should be treated differently from cows, pigs, and even dogs. To keep his case strong, he concentrates on chimpanzees, who share 99% of human DNA, who can be taught sign language, but who get the shaft legally because they cannot speak. He observes and is disgusted by the way chimps used for research at Stony Brook College in New York State and also chimps who are being held at some dilapidated quarters or forced to spend their lives entertaining people in zoos.
He asks judges—in one case a five-judge bench in a New York appellate court and later in an argument before a single sitting judge—to issue a writ of habeas corpus, which he calls the most important document in our assemblage of writs. “Habeas corpus,” which means literally “You may have the body,” requires a person who is detaining an individual to show cause in court why that individual should continue to be detained or imprisoned, while failing to do so requires that individual to be freed. The only difference is that Wise and a pair of able accomplices believe that chimps should be declared persons in the legal sense, not that they are on an equal plane with human beings but in the sense that they are persons in the same way that corporations are legal persons.
He probably does not think he will get too far with tradition-bound justices, but his aim seems to be to garner publicity for his fight, and he succeeds brilliantly, being on the cover page of a New York Times magazine, the subject of an article in a major German journal, and no doubt scores of other periodicals and talk shows around the world. He cites even the case of a ruling in New Zealand in which a judge granted personhood to a river and to a statue; again, not that anyone considers them people but only in a legal sense.
This doc will be of particular interest to an audience whose beliefs go beyond the notion that animals should not be tortured and killed for meat, since polls have shown that 85% of people queried agree (never mind that the vast majority are not vegetarians). Those of us who already know that animals should not be slaughtered for meat or be used for research for trivial reasons such as the testing of cosmetics are on a firm footing. But few of us would probably want to consider any non-human being to be a person.
I don’t want to spoil the ending. In a way there’s a nail-biting bit of suspense here as we wonder what the judges, particularly one Judge Jaffe who seems sympathetic, will finally rule. But just as we have come away from enslaving people, from treating women and non-property owners as ineligible, we are heading in a direction that will free at least the particularly intelligent animals like chimps, elephants and dolphins, as we dub them legal persons. Trump’s blather notwithstanding, our country is moving left, steadily granting equality or at least freedom for one group after another.
Unrated. 91 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+