Film Legend D.A. Pennebaker Is Crowdfunding a New Documentary on Chimpanzee Rights

By  · Published on April 23rd, 2014

Pennebaker Hegedus Films

As one of the pioneers of the Direct Cinema movement back in the 1960s, D.A. Pennebaker has long been associated with mostly observational films and concert docs, including the classics Don’t Look Back, The War Room, Monterey Pop, Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders of Mars, Town Bloody Hall and Company: Original Cast Album. Neither he nor his wife and filmmaking partner, Chris Hegedus, are thought of as directors of issue films. Their next feature, therefore, seems like a departure, though it probably isn’t as behind a cause as it sounds. The doc is called Unlocking the Cage and it follows attorney Steve Wise in his attempt to give animals the same legal rights as humans. Chimpanzees are the main focus, having been involved in his landmark lawsuit demanding personhood for the apes, one of which was a plaintiff in court last December.

In their campaign video on Kickstarter, where they’re hoping to raise at least $75K to continue production, Pennebaker and Hegedus definitely come across as being on Wise’s side, though that doesn’t mean their film will have too much of a stance on the issue. It’ll probably just be like how you can figure they were supporters of Bill Clinton while making The War Room even if that’s not explicitly illustrated on screen. The couple is clearly passionate about there being protection for the chimps and other animals, yet the project is more about the questions Wise’s efforts raise, and those on the other side of the issue will be given proper time to share their perspective. As Hegedus claims, it won’t matter if Wise is successful or not because his story will inspire a conversation about this next level in animal rights either way.

Part of me is disappointed in the current film industry that such legends as Pennebaker and Hegedus have to resort to crowdsourcing (they also have support from the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund and co-producers BBC). If they can’t fully finance something through traditional channels, especially after Pennebaker received an honorary Oscar a couple years ago, it’s hard to believe anyone can anymore. At the same time, when you’ve got veterans such as these doing a Kickstarter campaign, you know there’s going to be some cool pledge perks, including memorabilia from their old films. I wouldn’t mind one of those original Don’t Look Back pins, for instance, along with a limited edition t-shirt from the film. Not to mention the framed film strip, which is far out of my price range. You also know they’re going get their friends to help. One perk is a voicemail greeting by Michael Moore.

Even if you’re not as familiar with the couple’s older work, maybe you’re a fan of docs about chimpanzees. Recently we’ve seen a few, including James Marsh’s Project Nim, which makes its own case for why these animals shouldn’t be pets or subjects for experimentation or items to be owned at all. There’s also Disneynature’s Chimpanzee, which did some disservice to the subjects by emphasizing anthropomorphism, a human-like narrative and selling them on the cuteness factor that makes people want to have one or at least see it dress in people clothes and do funny tricks, yet which also contributed financially to and towards the awareness of conservation efforts.

Not to make light of a serious issue or this project, but I’ll admit I couldn’t help thinking of the Planet of the Apes movies, both old and new. Will letting chimpanzees be plaintiffs be the first step toward a time when they’re running the courts and a human astronaut is the one with no rights under Ape Law? I’m sure this isn’t the sort of question Hegedus intended for. So, let’s get back on track and watch the related Op-Docs short that was posted by the New York Times today:

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.