Who is a legal person? If you think the answer to that is simple, you’re wrong.

Unlocking the Cage, a new documentary produced by Pennebaker Hegedus Films, follows animal rights lawyer Steven Wise and his quest to earn legal protections for four captive chimpanzees in New York State. Specifically, Wise is fighting to prove that a chimpanzee should no longer be considered a legal “thing” and should instead be considered a legal “person” (identical to how corporations and a river have been deemed legal persons.) because legal personhood entails a right to freedom from imprisonment. This would make it illegal to privately own a chimpanzee and would require captive chimpanzees to be retired to primate sanctuaries like the PRC.

The film opened at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2016 and has since been touring the country. I was fortunate to attend its Los Angeles premiere on June 24th, which also featured a Q&A session with the filmmakers and Wise himself.

Those who already follow the issues surrounding nonhuman primates in this country will most likely already be familiar with Wise and his organization, The Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP.) Since late 2013, the NhRP has been strategically filing cases throughout New York State in an effort to change the common law and alter the legal standing of all chimpanzees (you may recall when I first met Wise and wrote about his work in a December 2013 PRC blog post and newsletter article entitled “Personhood Beyond the Human Conference.”) As is typical whenever someone questions mankind’s spot within the hierarchy of the natural, there was a media explosion when news first broke of Wise’s case filings. Even now, every time a judge hears another of his arguments, the stories pick up again and newspapers across the country are peppered with caricatures of chimpanzees sitting in courtrooms, wearing suits and perplexed expressions.

So although the content of this film was not new to me, I appreciate that the film was made because its very existence helps make nonhuman primate rights more permanent in our culture. I celebrate that the topic is being transmitted across the country and hopefully reaching new eyes and ears. Additionally, it was wonderful to see friends from the primate sanctuary community in the film, including those at Fauna Foundation (who co-founded the North American Primate Sanctuary Alliance, along with the PRC and five other primate sanctuaries in 2010.) What I most appreciated, and what I think is most valuable in using film as the medium to tell this story, was seeing the legal team’s work behind the scenes. Theirs was not a smooth road. The blood, sweat and tears of Wise and his cohorts had built up over seven years. The NhRP met numerous hurdles with increased determination and they pushed ahead, because they felt morally obligated to do so.

They are still pushing ahead today. After the screen went black and the filmmakers and Wise took the stage to answer questions, Wise described how the NhRP has not yet succeeded in freeing any of the four chimpanzees involved in their cases. Even more worrisome, one of chimpanzees (Tommy, who was caged alone in a trailer park) is now missing. His team is currently investigating Tommy’s whereabouts.

Captive chimpanzees deserve lives free of imprisonment, and until they can enjoy that, they need a voice who asks for that. Wise and his team have, in a sense, boldly gone where no-one has before, risking the chance of ridicule and failure.

A Gallup poll mentioned in the film found that 30% of Americans responded that animals should have the same rights as humans.  This is evidence that we are now living in what Steven Wise referred to as a “rapidly evolving consciousness.” It is happening all around us and although Unlocking the Cage accurately shows how much uncertainty still surrounds the issue of nonhuman primate rights (When? Who? Where? What will it mean?), we know those rights are imminent.

Chris Hegedus, Steven Wise and D.A. Pennebaker

Unlocking the Cage is screening in theatres across the country and will eventually be shown on HBO. For more information please visit http://www.unlockingthecagethefilm.com.