From “Don’t Look Back” with Bob Dylan, “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” featuring David Bowie and “The War Room” about the team behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 President campaign, the Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have long chronicled stories about passionate people. With their latest project, “Unlocking the Cage,” they have an equally compelling character: lawyer Steve Wise, who has been taking legal measures to gain equal rights for animals. Wise is seeking personhood rights for animals, specifically for four chimpanzees in New York State.
Pennebaker and Hegedus have been working on the film for the last two years and are now in a holding pattern until Wise presents his case to the Appellate Court this fall. Indiewire recently spoke with the legendary documentarians about why the story appealed to them and why they decided to turn to Kickstarter to raise money. With nine days left to go, they have raised nearly $50,000 of their $75,000 goal and are offering some amazing backer perks, including a voicemail from Michael Moore, “Don’t Look Back” t-shirts and original 35 mm film strips from some of the director’s films.
How did you initially get involved in this project?
Chris Hegedus: We’ve been following Steve Wise for the last two years on his journey to argue for personhood for chimpanzees in New York State. We’ve followed the process really from the beginning when he was choosing to do chimpanzees rather than elephants or orca whales which are all animals which have been found to have high cognitive abilities and are self-aware and some can do arithmetic. He decided to do chimpanzees because they have the most research surrounding them and they also have a place to go. They can’t just be released from their captivity. They have to be sent to a sanctuary. There are plenty of sanctuaries for chimpanzees.
We followed a lot of the drama of Steve along the way. He had different chimpanzee plaintiffs – right up to the end, he had their names on legal briefs, and then they died. There was a lot of drama along the way. We followed him along the suits and we want to be with him for his ultimate challenge in front of an appeals court.
D.A. Pennebaker: Everybody loves little animals. They have a pet at home or a dog
or a cat or sometimes a moose. They feel very kindly toward animals, but
as far as the world is concerned, animals are just things. This has
bothered him [Steve] because he could see that a lot of animals were being
mistreated…In a sense, unlike dogs and cats, who we understand
they’ll only be around for 10 or 12 years, these animals live for 50 or
60 years. After the first five years or so that they’re being used as
testing models, they have to be put in cages and live like prisoners. This bothered him a lot. He thought the only way to solve the problem is
through the law. Slaves were things too. You could have a slave and
shoot him and nobody could do anything to you about it. But when slaves
became minions of the law, that all changed, as we know.
How is this project similar to your previous films?
Hegedus: Like a lot of the films that we’ve done — like “The War Room” or
“Startup.com” or the films about musicians, we look for films about
people who are totally passionate about what they’re doing and are
willing to take some sort of risk for something they believe in.
Almost all of the stories that we do are real life stories. You don’t really know what’s going to happen. In “The War Room,” if Clinton had lost the election, we would have a film about the staff of the losing candidate, not a very marketable film.
Why did you decide to turn to crowdfunding to raise money?
Hegedus: It’s always a challenge raising money. This one is a longer challenge.
Pennebaker: Most of our films, they generally take a year and you can afford to do it. Usually you can try to get your money back so you stay in
business. You’re not ever going to make a huge profit on documentaries
and people learned that the hard way. But in this case, because it is
dealing with the law and courts, which move very slowly, it’s taken us two
years just watching Steve and a group of lawyers around him try to
strategize this process. It looks like it might go
on for another year, even more. That’s way beyond our ability to
finance. That’s why we decided to try Kickstarter.
Why this project at this moment?
Pennebaker: It’s an idea whose time as come. Whenever a filmmaker smells that in the
wind, he tends to grab his camera and see what is coming. It’s what’s
coming that’s interesting to everybody really. Only people who have
sharpened their noses to the wind as it were and have actually gone out and
seen what’s happening can be sure of what they’re telling you. That’s our role as filmmakers, to film and find out what happened.
Watch the Kickstarter campaign video for “Unlocking the Cage” below and check out the page here.