Review: ‘Unlocking the Cage’

Hot Docs 2016

2 mins read

Unlocking the Cage
(USA, 92 min.)
Dir. Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Programme: Special Presentations (Canadian Premiere)


Are non-human animals going to be given the same legal rights as people? In the U.S., where legally corporations are people (and sometimes even boats share the same rights), a group of activist lawyers are seeking to extend the fundamental right of habeas corpus to other species.

The latest film from the famed duo of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker, Unlocking the Cage follows attorney Steve Wise as he builds a case for personhood for chimpanzees—in particular, traumatised ones. Tracing the work of the “nonhuman rights project”, Hegedus and Pennebaker’s camera joins in the crusade, following from small-town zoos to ornate courtrooms as the arguments make their way through the system.

Wise’s arguments are presented sympathetically, made more manifest by the intimate way in which the documentarians feel embedded within this group. Still, Unlocking the Cage (to its benefit) isn’t itself overtly a work of advocacy, giving ample time to court proceedings, which offer differing points of view from those expressed by Wise and the members of the “nonhuman” project.

While the rights of animals remains unsettled, it’s clear that Wise and his team’s work is opening the door to some highly provocative ethical and legal concerns that will surely grow in importance in years to come. As a documentation of these early stages, combined with a charismatic subject on the hunt for what he feels to be a matter of fundamental justice, Unlocking the Cage is sure to be a film that many audiences will find captivating.

Unlocking the Cage screens:
-Tuesday, May 3 at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema at 6:30 PM (Scotiabank Big Ideas screening)
-Thursday, May 5 at Hart House at 9:45 PM
-Friday, May 6 at the Fox Theatre at 9:30 PM


Hot Docs runs April 28 – May 8. Visit for more information.


Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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