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Sundance 2016 Women Directors: Meet Chris Hegedus – ‘Unlocking the Cage’

Sundance 2016 Women Directors: Meet Chris Hegedus - 'Unlocking the Cage'

Chris Hegedus has been making films as a director, cinematographer and editor for 40 years. She received the 2001 DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement for “” With her husband and partner, D.A. Pennebaker, she directed “The War Room,” a behind-­the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. The film received an Academy Award nomination and won the National Board of Review’s D.W. Griffith Award for Best Documentary. Hegedus has received lifetime achievement awards from several organizations, including the International Documentary Association. (Press materials) 

Unlocking the Cage” will premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25. The documentary is co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing.

CH: “Unlocking the Cage” follows animal rights lawyer Steven Wise in his unprecedented challenge to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. He files the first lawsuits that seek to transform a chimpanzee from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with legal protections.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

CH: I have always felt that documentaries are an opportunity for me to witness a world that I know nothing about. When Steve Wise told me that he intended to argue in court before a judge that an animal could be a “legal person,” it seemed like a novel, possibly far-fetched idea, but the more I thought about it, the more I became intrigued.

Steve decided that his first plaintiff would be a cognitively complex animal such as a chimpanzee, whale, dolphin or elephant — animals that, based on scientific evidence, have deep emotions, understand each other’s minds, live in complicated societies, use sophisticated communication, solve problems and even mourn the loss of their loved ones, just like humans. A limited personhood right, such as the right to bodily liberty, would finally protect them from physical abuse.

Steve spent the last 30 years figuring out his legal strategy. He was passionate and now ready to risk all for his beliefs, which is just the kind of person I want to follow in a documentary.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

CH: “Unlocking the Cage” is a legal story that follows three separate lawsuits for chimpanzees held in captivity in New York State. A big challenge was filming over the long three-year process that it took for the cases to move through the court system. Also getting access to shoot in both the lower courts and the appellate courts was difficult, and obtaining permission from each of the judges was sensitive.  

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theater?

CH: During the years that I have been following Steve, there has been a monumental shift in our culture as the media and public show increasing receptiveness to Steve’s arguments about why we should expand our legal system to include a nonhuman animal, such as a chimpanzee.

The scientific research from primatologists, such as Jane Goodall, is convincing and extensive. Some of the most compelling moments for me in the film are of Kanzi, Koko and Tatu, great apes who have been taught to communicate with us using sign language or symbols.

I hope the film will inspire people to think differently about animals and why they deserve protection.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

CH: When I was growing up in the ’50s, I had never heard of a “woman film director,” so I did not consider it as an option. But I was fortunate that in the late-’60s and ’70s, because of the feminist movement, women were stepping into all sorts of careers that had been closed to them in the past and film was one of them.  

I am particularly pleased to see that today there are so many women working in documentary film. But it is still difficult for women to juggle family and work. Collaboration can be advantageous, as well as organizations that support women filmmakers. Learning how to do some of the technical work on the film can be helpful too and allows you to start the film on your own. However, if you are passionate about an idea, just begin.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

CH: I think that women are still not taken as seriously as men in this business. Even after forty years of directing, shooting and editing films, when I collaborate with a male partner, people still perceive the man as the primary filmmaker.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

CH: It’s always been difficult for me to find funding for a story that I want to follow in real time. Financiers are hesitant to support a project when they don’t know the outcome. This was the case with “Unlocking the Cage.”

However, since I shoot, record audio and edit, I was able to begin the filming without hiring a crew and create a sample to show broadcasters and grant organizations. Catapult and Tribeca Gucci were early supporters, [as was] Nick Fraser at BBC Storyville. Midway through the three years of this long legal story, we were awarded a Sundance grant to cover our film shoots at animal sanctuaries. But we still needed additional funding to film the lawsuits as they moved up to the appellate courts.

We decided to mount a Kickstarter campaign for the film. The NY Times Magazine was doing a cover story on our subject, Steve Wise, so we timed our campaign around the publication’s release. We also created a short NY Times Op Doc on our film. Crowdsourcing is an invaluable resource for filmmakers, but be prepared for an enormous amount of work. In the end we successfully raised our goal and remain forever grateful to the many people who supported our project.

I edited another sample of the film, and Sara Bernstein and Shelia Nevins at HBO came onboard to help us finish. It’s been wonderful working with them and to have their support. Additionally, Jane Balfour, our international film agent, sold the show to several European broadcasters.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

CH: My favorite film is “Meshes in the Afternoon,” a short avant garde film directed by Maya Deren. This was the first film that I saw that was actually directed by a woman. It was shot in black and white and it seemed like something that I could do myself — unlike a big-budget Hollywood film with actors. The film encouraged me to pick up a movie camera and begin making my own experimental films, which eventually moved me toward documentaries.

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