An Interview with D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

| May 26, 2016

Can a river be a person? Should a 180 mile waterway, traversing the slopes of an active volcano, lined by scenic flour mills and home to 18 species of fish be granted the same legal rights as a human being? The New Zealand government thought so when it granted the Whanganui River personhood status in 2012.

What are the elements required to grant a being, or in this case a country’s third longest river, the distinction of personhood? Most would say some kind of self-awareness, but then comes the question of how can a human fully interpret another being’s self-awareness?

For some time now humans have taken a great deal of inspiration from nature when trying to improve upon their designs and technologies; the kingfisher as a model for the bullet train, the skin of a Galapagos Shark for an anti-bacterial coating in hospitals and the wing covers of the Nambib Beetle in extracting water from fog.

All of this requires a careful degree of observation, but are humans perhaps overlooking or misunderstanding vital forms of communication screaming out from the animal kingdom? This is the question that is posed in Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s thought-provoking new documentary Unlocking The Cage. The film follows animal rights lawyer Steven Wise who after 30 years of battling ineffective animal welfare laws, is attempting to make history by filing the first lawsuits that seek to transform an animal from a “thing” with no rights to a “person” with legal protections. Possessing affidavits from a number of primatologists, Steve maintains that cognitively complex animals such as chimpanzees, whales, dolphins and elephants have the capacity for limited personhood rights, and should be protected against physical abuse.

Now utilizing writs of habeas corpus (historically used to free humans from unlawful imprisonment), Wise argues on behalf of four captive chimpanzees in New York State in an attempt to shift public and judicial opinion into rethinking its notions of personhood and whom is eligible to receive such a distinction.

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with directors Hegedus and Pennebaker to discuss the origins of the production and their rich collaborative history.

MV: How did you become aware of Steven Wise, and what about his crusade compelled you enough to want to pursue the project?

CH: Well, like all of our films, somebody brought the idea to us. In this case it was Rosadel Varela who is one of the producers on the project. And when we do films we look for people who are really passionate about something and are taking on a life goal they’ve been trying to accomplish their whole career, and Steve really fit into that idea. It was good timing because we were looking for a new project. We had this dog who was sort of our office mascot and had recently died and we were in mourning, and it seemed fate-like the way Steve came into our lives and told us what he was trying to do; taking an animal which is considered a thing and making it into a legal person. Now we had no idea what that meant, but it sounded intriguing, and the way we work is basically we don’t do a lot of research, and instead we really learn about our subject as we are out there in the field filming because as they’re discovering things we’re discovering them.

MV: Steve was tremendously influenced by Peter Singer’s book Animal Liberation. Were you familiar with Singer’s work prior to developing the project?

DAP: No, only after he showed it to us. But Peter Singer’s book, although interesting, would not have been enough to pull me into the subject if that’s all I had been exposed to. On the other hand, when I read Steve’s books, they’re so well-written and interesting that right away I became invested in him even beyond our subject because of the way he writes and presents himself.

MV: His enthusiasm is certainly infectious and he has a way of making you feel passion for something you might have never considered before.

CH: And there’s usually one moment in the beginning of a project that makes you want to do the film. And I remember with this project it was following Steve up to Harvard where he was going to teach. And as we were riding in the cab he turned and said to me that when he first started and entered courtrooms people would to bark at him, and now of course it’s changing. But to have that kind of passion for 30 years and to keep fighting is a pretty amazing thing, and it really makes you interested in the topic and what he’s doing.

MV: This legal niche he’s carved out for himself is pretty unique. I don’t think I’ve heard of someone putting forth all of their efforts into representing animals the way he does.

DAP: And it seems like such a smart idea. Someone like me, who doesn’t know anything about the law beyond paying traffic tickets, I wanted to go along for this ride and see what would happen. And in fact what really got me was the thought of being in a courtroom when a judge would say you know, you really have something there, and be able to film it.

MV: You both have such a diverse body of work, and I’m wondering if a story has to possess a certain theme or element for you to want to pursue it?

CH: Well, we look for a strong character who’s ready to take the plunge and see what happens, and if they have some kind of charismatic quality that’s great. I mean, if I could have Bob Dylan in every film that would be wonderful. If only Bob Dylan had a chimpanzee it would have been perfect! And usually there’s something about the subject that’s in the zeitgeist in some way and certainly this subject did. Films like Monterey Pop or Startup.com are stories that sensed something happening, and I really think this film does as well, because every day new information comes out about how we should treat animals more humanely, so I feel it’s very appropriate for this time.

DAP: And the driving force in every story is this question: And then what happened? I think that the films we make somehow set us up for the next project that comes along. So when somebody enters through our door bringing an idea that echoes some sense of what we’ve grown to like it grabs us. You’re not quite sure what’s going to happen, but the film is how you find out. You don’t write a script, or have a yellow pad with notes. You pick up the camera and follow that person because you’re going to find out what happens.

MV: It seems like you both have this amazing ability to identify subject matter that is influential or right on the cusp of exploding and becoming a bigger part of the public consciousness. Even with War Room and the Clinton campaign, you knew that a change was in the air.

DAP: I think there’s a measure of luck there. I’m willing to admit it wasn’t our wisdom entirely. There were forces beyond us that you could feel in the wind. The thing about Steve is, it isn’t that I feel he’s just being kind to an animal and I like animals. That’s too easy. Everybody likes their animals. He’s futurizing in some way that I don’t fully understand, but I see and smell that what he sees in his own way is some kind of future that I barely perceive but am getting a sense of, and I suspect that in 30 or 40 years animal lovers will look back and think of him as the George Washington who crossed the Delaware of that era. He was the first to put animals into a different position in the larger culture.

MV: How does the production process unfold? When you start shooting, are both of you out in the field?

DAP: She does the filming, and I do the watching. I’m a good watcher. And that’s what I always was, was a watcher. I didn’t believe in directing people. Instead I just watched them with this machine that really came of age in our time; a machine that when you point it at something, it tells you what’s really there; it cannot lie. And that’s such an amazing device for us humans. Ever since I have found out about it, I’ve been intrigued about what you can do with it in the way of discovery.

CH: And on this project we did it very small. We didn’t have any money in the beginning so it was just me going around with Steve filming, taking sound, editing and trying to get grants and money and slowly we began getting partners for the film. But it was a long process. It took years, and to the point where we had to do a Kickstarter campaign to try and keep the film going. But you know, you get hooked on these things and it was really important to us. The story was fascinating and there was a lot of suspense as to whether Steve would be able to get these cases into a court and in front of judges, and we really wanted to see if he did and how he would do it.

MV: The camera is such a powerful tool, and some have even called it a weapon of sorts, where it gives you the confidence to enter into places you might not otherwise do so. Have you found this to be true at all?

CH: I mean, I think it’s a privilege is what it is. It allows you drop into worlds that you were never allowed to see before. I realized this right in the beginning with my first paying job which was filming surgeries for the University of Michigan Hospital. There were all these medical residents who had been waiting years to get into the operating room, and here I was able to do so the first day I started. It’s a real privilege that you get to see people and people share their lives with you. It’s amazing. And it’s also a responsibility when you edit down their lives. We had to turn the three years that we followed Steve into an hour and a half film and I’m sure he was very curious to see how we condensed it because I never showed him anything along the way. So you have a great responsibility on you.

MV: One of the thrilling aspects of documentary filmmaking is that you’re discovering things as your subject is. I imagine this can be exciting but also worrisome as you’re not sure where the film might ultimately go.

DAP: The ability to show people something they didn’t know about before I think is something that has always pulled people towards discovery. It’s the incredible inborn curiosity of the human mind.

CH: I mean, it is a risk to do these types of stories that you’re following. I always remember in The War Room, if Clinton had lost we’d have an amazing film about the losing campaign staff of the losing candidate. It’s uncertain how sellable something like that would be.

MV: And is this concern constantly running through your mind during the production?

CH: Yes. Unlocking The Cage went on for a long time and it was very hard to sustain an independent documentary film company for years following this story and wondering where it would go and if something would happen. But I think that type of risk and relationship with your subject endears you to one another because you’re kind of on the same level of risk.

DAP: It’s always been the problem for any new thing, and the documentary form was such a new thing. No one imagined that a single person could make a film. Films of course were made in big factories, and the issue became how to get past the gatekeepers who had decided that no one else should be able to do what they do. And it’s a struggle. For many of our films, including Don’t Look Back, I couldn’t get anyone to distribute it. We had to do it ourselves. We had to do all the first few films ourselves. Well, we’re terrible distributers. That’s the last thing in the world we should try to be doing. But you have to do it if there’s no other way. So you struggle with more than just the aspects of the art form. You struggle with all sorts of things that you didn’t think you should. But that’s the history of a new idea, and I think Steve had to struggle with it too. It’s the merit of how much it matters that determines how well it survives that struggle.

MV: If an aspiring filmmaker looks at a big Hollywood production, I’m sure that a sense of intimidation can arise. How can a novice filmmaker obtain the resources to create a story like that? But with the documentary form, you realize that there are compelling stories all around us, and you don’t need a big budget necessarily to tell them.

CH: Well that’s definitely how I got into it. I had no idea that women could even be directors when we first started. There were very few role models at all. And then I saw some of the first films that Penny was involved in; specifically a film called Jane which followed Jane Fonda and her failed Broadway debut. It had everything a fiction film had; a beautiful actress and a very dramatic Hollywood kind of story of let’s put on a play. And I thought oh, I could do that. I’ll just shoot it myself and the reality around me will be quite thrilling. That’s the amazing thing about these stories is that they’re very much like a Hollywood narrative. The only difference is they’re about real people, and in some ways it makes it more compelling I think because it’s the real person, and you get to see them doing it.

MV:I think people are even more on the edge of their seats in front of a documentary film because they know these events are based in reality.

DAP: I think, in fact, it’s the beginning of a new language. Usually children invent new languages because old people already have one, and I think a lot of us are like children in an age where language has taken over everything. I’ve kind of come to this peculiar sense that all life has the ability to speak in some form, and we just don’t know it. I mean all forms; ants, cockroaches, everything. They can somehow communicate in these complex ways, and I think our next one hundred years will be spent trying to figure out how that happens, because we’re going to need to know how to survive on a planet that in some ways we’re wrecking.

MV: Going along with language, it seems like one of Steve’s major quests is to repair the miscommunication amongst the species. As the film shows, the issue for many people is this term of personhood. When people hear personhood, they think human beings, and if you try to bestow it on another species their defenses automatically go up. Had you thought about this idea of personhood prior to starting the project?

CH: No, we were totally clueless on it. But I think the idea of personhood is a very complex idea and it doesn’t just extend to living beings as we think of them, because we’ve used it now for corporations, ships and a lot of other things. The idea that a living being that’s autonomous and conscious and has a society and culture shouldn’t have some kind of legal right to protect them is going to seem as old fashion of an issue as gay marriage I think. In some other countries they’re using categories such as sentient being, and just dividing it so that animals are no longer things and property, and maybe that’s what we will be doing here as well. But something needs to be done because the current laws just don’t go far enough. Public sentiment with the issue is rising, and you can see it with things like the elephants that Ringling Brothers recently retired. Yes, they’re retired, but often times they’re still caged, chained and used for research. I mean they don’t have the type of rights that Steve is arguing for which is for them to be free any sort of abuse.

MV: When you begin a film do you have an idea of where it’s going to go, or is much of it a surprise?

DAP: Well, you have an idea of the film, but you don’t necessarily know where it’s going to go. You learn a lot along the journey. For example, when we went to see our daughter graduate from Berkley we went to Muir Woods and saw these gigantic trees coupling. And it turns out this is the way they like to grow, and I thought, this process of growth is just like how human beings interact. These trees are communicating all around us and we have no idea. We need a person like Steve to come around and open our eyes to these neglected areas of existence, because I suspect that the process that allows life to take old in the world around us involves so much strange communication. Although currently we’re not fully aware of these other forms of communication, eventually we’ll realize everything, including tiny particles like amoebas, have ways of communicating what their intentions are. That’s a huge part of what life is; that ability and need to communicate.

CH: Yes, this project certainly made us think differently about sentience in other beings. When we filmed the chimpanzees in different circumstances, and saw them communicating, that was a real life-changing moment for both of us, and certainly for me. One specific moment was when we encountered Kanzi the bonobo using the lexigram computer board and it was clear he totally understood language. It wasn’t like with a dog where you throw a ball and have them bring it back. It was that he understood what I was asking him without doing any of the other things, and that was chilling.

DAP: The process is like that of a child. A child learns at home how to speak. By the time they’re off to school they already know how to communicate. And with chimpanzees, as they wander about and listen to people talk, they’re going to learn how to speak. They can’t verbally speak our language, but they understand what the words mean. And when we were filming in one of the sanctuaries Chris asked a chimpanzee did you get the ball, and the chimpanzee held it up for her to see. Things like that surprise you. You don’t think that’s going to happen.

MV: I think even the more reluctant critic after seeing footage like that would have to pause and reevaluate their attitude towards the situation.

CH: And that was important for me too, because I knew that from the onset of this project I didn’t want to make a film that was going to be watching painful footage of animals being tortured. I mean, there’s a little bit of that included because it’s the basis of the story, but I really wanted to focus on the fact that these are sentient beings and incredibly complex and intelligent.

MV: Your first collaboration together was on Town Bloody Hall wasn’t it?

DAP: It was one of the first. When we began working together I showed her a shelf of film projects we had accumulated including Town Bloody Hall, which I had shot and didn’t quite know how to make a feminist film out of it. Now, I didn’t know that’s what it should be, but I certainly didn’t want to make it a joke film about feminism so I was happy to have Chris come in to look at it with a different set of eyes.

And there were moments in the middle of it that I had forgotten about, like when I was on stage because the manager of the theater was trying to kick us out. There were three of us and he was chasing us all around, and the two other shooters were hiding amongst the audience and filming when they could while I went up on stage because I figured he wouldn’t follow me up there. So I’m on stage which gives me a wonderful shot of both the audience and Norman Mailer and Germaine Grier. Norman and I had had a few discussions in the past and I was always fascinated by his ideas, so I turned the camera on him and it’s like I’m not making a movie anymore, and instead Norman is explaining his views on very complicated things and I’m trying to take them in, and I had forgotten that I was supposed to be shooting this movie and instead I’m just watching him with a very tight shot on his face. So we had a lot of close-ups on Norman.

CH: It was a fascinating event for me because these were all my heroes at the time because of the feminist movement. And to just see them all there in person was extraordinary. The event was just so wild. I mean, I edited it as a sexual tension event between Norman and Germaine because there was just so much of that there.

MV: I have to say it is fun to watch Norman getting more frustrated as the event goes on.

CH: Well, he came to our office to watch it and said this is the night Jill Johnston turned my hair gray. He said he was totally clueless about what the women’s liberation movement was about going into the event, and thought he was the dumbest person in the room, so he was very modest about what had happened there. Whereas Jill Johnston, when she saw it, said you know Chris, I was the best person there wasn’t I?

So, it was really the last happening of the 60’s even though it occurred in the 70’s. It just had that quality of what was occurring in the 60’s, and I think after that everything evolved including the women’s liberation movement. It was shot very roughly, and I was like what are they thinking? This isn’t a rock concert! Is everyone on acid shooting this?

DAP: Well what works, and I realized this after seeing an early version of it before it was finished, is that because of the way things were captured in there, everything is a close up. So you’re just seeing faces talking to faces, and the huge melee that goes on doesn’t mess up what people are saying. And I think if we had been on tripods sitting in the back of the room trying to shoot it wouldn’t have worked as it does. So despite the seemingly bad way it was shot, somehow this approach worked to its advantage.

CH: And I remember that because it was so badly shot that I left in, and I don’t do this very often anymore, all the swoosh pans so that it would seem as if you’re at this wild and exciting event, which it was.

MV: Obviously you two are big music fans, but I’m wondering what else gives you passion in life and inspires you to keep moving forward professionally and artistically?

CH: I get inspired by the characters we film. I mean, usually there’s something that I learn from every project, like the stamina and enthusiasm Steve has in this film to keep going on.

DAP: I think there are certain people during any time that capture the spirit of a moment, like the way Dylan has or the way Bowie did. I remember reading a wonderful two volume set containing Byron’s letters, and I became fascinated by the entries describing when he and Shelley went down to Italy and hung out with all these British intellectuals. It was like San Francisco during the 60’s, and they were doing real nutty stuff like shooting at the Italian police and pretending they were in the Wild West. And I thought, if someone had been around then with a camera and had made a film about what was going on people would still be watching that film. I thought, that is the sort of film I should try and make with Dylan; a film that people would be interested in watching a hundred years from when it took place. And I didn’t know why. You don’t need to know why, you just need to smell that there’s a powerful force in the air, and I think that’s present in a lot of the films we make. There’s always a language circling around, and the one I like to listen to is the one speaking to the future.

Unlocking The Cage is currently playing in New York, and is a First Run Features release in association with HBO Documentary Films.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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