Unlocking The Cage follows a small team of lawyers and animal right activists spearheaded by one man, animal rights lawyer Steven Wise, as they boldly set out to make history by proposing that animals should no longer be a piece of property, a ‘thing’ in the eyes of the law, but a person with certain legal protections. Based on an animal’s ability for self-determination and autonomy, Wise and team use writs of habeas corpus to fight on behalf of four chimpanzees in New York state.

Blocked at nearly every turn legally, and with fate against them as each chimpanzee they use as their defendant dies, the tenacity and hard work of the team is highly admirable. The evidence which Wise’s team pull together is an engaging watch: the interviews with the scientists, chimpanzees using sign language and computers to communicate complex sentences and the horrific footage of the animals in cruel captivity and for scientific research.

Yet what makes Unlocking The Cage so interesting is the in-depth coverage of the legal battle. The audience is never patronised but are privy to the technical discussions of how to argue for personhood, the mock-trials, the rejection letters from the court, the filming of the trials themselves, from the opening statement to the problematic area of using slavery as a precedent of habeas corpus. As such the complex philosophical arguments around what it is to be a person, and the legal understanding of that, are explored fully.

It’s difficult to make a documentary about a legal battle interesting – particularly where there is no defendant to interview. But Unlocking The Cage achieves this because at its heart is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be a person, told in an intelligent and utterly convincing way.  

RATING: 4/5 


DIRECTOR: Chris Hegedus, D.A Pennebaker 

SYNOPSIS: A small group of lawyers and animal activists launch a legal battle to have four chimpanzees in New York granted certain rights of personhood.