Unlocking the Cage is a documentary by Chris Hegedus and D.A.Pennebaker, film-makers known best for Don’t Look Back, about Bob Dylan’s 1965 tour of the U.K., and The War Room, about Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. It follows the advocate Steven Wise as he attempts to make non-human animals, specifically chimpanzees, ‘visible’ to the U.S. courts: that is, to have them recognized as legal persons with a right to freedom. It’s a sort of court drama, then. An early scene shows Steven Wise passing under the giant architectural lettering ROBERT ABRAMS BUILDING FOR LAW AND JUSTICE. Law and justice: a giant institution and the giant ideal fruit of it, and, attempting to get the one to yield the other, this small (but not slight) David-figure, Steven Wise.
The law-question is certainly a momentous and fascinating one: for more on this aspect of Wise’s project, see an earlier VERO post, ‘Let my people go! Animals and the Law’ (linked in the notes below). But the film humanizes it as a sort of quest or modern pilgrimage, in which the court appearances are only the brief though cumulative crises. In between is the journeying: on freeways and country tracks, to and from airports, up and down courtroom stairs, along pavements and corridors, often with weighty boxes of documentation, like the “great burden” of sin that John Bunyan has his pilgrim carry.
These journeys join up the elements of Wise’s campaign: the courts and the chimpanzees. One set of chimpanzees he has to search out at their various lock-ups: a remote trailer-park, a shabby zoo, a home menagerie (“kind of creepy”), a smart and secretive university research lab. “We’re all ready to cry”, Wise says after one of these excursions. And it’s not just a dismal present and uncertain future weighing on these animals: they’re adults, aging nearly as slowly as humans do, and they drag behind them strange and shocking histories of misuse, mainly as ‘entertainment’. Some die in the course of the film (“Captivity is killing these guys”). The other set of chimpanzees is found in dedicated sanctuaries, enjoying what can be afforded to them in America of freedom, and it’s this sort of freedom that Wise claims as a right in law for the imprisoned ones. Corresponding to these different situations, and responsible for them, there’s a range of distinctive human primate types, from shifty deal-makers to pioneering ethologists.
The third element in Wise’s journeying is the courts, to which these clips of heaven and hell are to be brought for consideration. The judges are attentive, quizzical, suspicious of a proposition so new to the law. Wise tells them it isn’t new: it’s there, implicit in the hundreds-of-years old writ of habeas corpus, a writ which orders the detainer to ‘produce the body’ of the detainee in court and justify the detention. At any rate it certainly isn’t new for Wise himself. As he treads the pavement towards yet another courtroom, and a colleague asks him what he’s thinking about, he says, “stuff I’ve been thinking about for thirty years”.
Those thirty years show in Wise’s face not as professional polish (even his suit and tie never make him look unhomely), but as a history of moral and intellectual activity: pocked and striated, but full of indefeasible humour and goodwill – morally a profoundly reassuring face. He’s likewise plain-speaking and unrhetorical both in court and outside it, as ready to summarize a case in the short minutes allowed by a judge, as to field challenges in a news studio, or to steer a joke genially his way on a TV comedy show.
Yes, all his “petitioners” are chimpanzees, but this is only the start of the campaign: “There’s going to be a lot of battles in the war. But it’s time to begin.” And at this stage, Wise’s key concept is autonomy: the capacity to know and direct one’s own life, a capacity which the writ of habeas corpus is especially fitted to address. This is a capacity which one might argue all animals possess in some form as their natural birthright (except perhaps ants and social bees), and Wise himself makes no exclusions. But chimpanzees show it with special clarity, and in fact Wise’s case is backed by affidavits on the subject provided by renowned primatologists: that’s some of what’s in the boxes.
In the film, we see aspects of that expert evidence, notably the easy communications between chimpanzees and their human students or carers. If these seem artificial (as indeed they must be), there’s the unprompted and astonishing sight of Koko the gorilla turning away from his favourite video, plainly moved and unable to watch a painful scene in which a mother says goodbye to her child at a railway station. The gorilla compassionates the humans. Am I dreaming, or is this a glimpse of a squandered moral kingdom? As the poet Paul Eluard said, “There is another world, and it is this one.”
Back in Wise’s untidy office, the book-spines indicate the ethical background to his quest: Free Men All, Lincoln, The Dred Scott Case, Slave Nation. His key precedent for the use he means to make of habeas corpus is the decision of Lord Justice Mansfield, in London in 1772, on just such a writ served on behalf of the slave James Somerset. Mansfield’s ruling fixed, from then on, the illegality of slavery in England. But this ‘dreaded comparison’ (the title of Marjorie Spiegel’s short book about animal and human slaveries) is not liked by the judges when Wise uses it: “move in a different direction”, Justice Karen Peters warningly advises him. This same advice to keep off the slavery theme was given Wise during a BBC radio discussion, on which occasion he imperturbably replied, “My people were enslaved by Pharaoh a long time ago, and I understand it.” It’s a conclusive answer, but not one that can be used to correct judges, many of whom are evidently still uneasy about Darwin’s theory.
In fact this film shows how superstitiously entrenched speciesism is in the U.S. courts, as elsewhere. New York’s assistant attorney-general, whom Wise faces as opposing counsel in the final court scene, really has nothing but that to make his argument out of: the chimpanzees are a “different species”; to dignify them with the rights attaching to personhood would mean a “diminishment of those rights”; it would mean “opening the possible floodgates”, and “could affect our society in a negative way.” Fortunately this is not quite enough for Justice Barbara Jaffe. Without recounting this last critical event in the story as filmed, I can say at least that it marks, as Steven Wise says, “the end of the beginning”. And in the final scene, where an elephant, with a history of hardship in its eye and its gait, is directed by a ‘master’ to give rides to American families, there is Steven Wise, like any tourist, watching and taking photographic evidence. The elephants come next.
When the credits roll onto the screen, and lists of the non-human primates and of the judges pass by among the rest, the voice of Bob Dylan (earliest subject of a Hegedus and Pennebaker film) is allowed to give, to all that has been shown in the film, for the first time an outlet in impassioned eloquence:
I see my light come shining
From the west down to the east;
Any day now, any day now,
I shall be released.
Notes and references:
Steven Wise discussed the legal implications of his campaign on the BBC Radio 4 programme Unreliable Evidence, as reported in the VERO blog at https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/let-my-people-go-animals-and-the-law/ All the details of Steven Wise’s Nonhuman Rights Project can be found at http://www.nonhumanrightsproject.org/
Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animals Slavery was published in the U.K. by Heretic Books in 1988.
The quotation from Paul Eluard is translated thus and used by Patrick White as the epigraph to his 1966 novel The Solid Mandala. That’s the only form in which I know it, but I gather that a more accurate if less forceful translation of Eluard’s words would be “There is certainly another world, but it’s within this one.”
A trailer and other details for Unlocking the Cage can be found at https://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com/ There will be a showing of the film, sponsored by VERO, in the University during the coming Trinity term: see VERO’s facebook page nearer the time, at https://www.facebook.com/Voice-for-Ethical-Research-at-Oxford-VERO-734691993224030/