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D.A. Pennebaker interview - Support new documentary, get vintage Bob Dylan swag

D.A. Pennebaker is the legendary filmmaker who directed such music-based documentaries as “Dont Look Back” (Bob Dylan), “Monterey Pop,” “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” (David Bowie), “John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band: Sweet Toronto,” “101” (Depeche Mode), and “Down From The Mountain,” among many others.

NY Times article
NY Times articleNew York Times

However, music is only one the genres Pennebaker has documented over the past six decades. Pennebaker’s current project with his wife and co-director, Chris Hegedus ("The War Room" and "Startup.com"), is “Unlocking the Cage,” which takes a look at obtaining legal human rights for animals, and in this case, chimpanzees. The couple are using Kickstarter to raise money to fund the project. $75,000 is the goal, which must be reached by next Friday, May 23, at 6:18 a.m. Among the exclusive items backers can receive are “Dont Look Back” t-shirts and vintage buttons, movie posters, autographed books, LPs, and DVDs, actual film strips from selected Pennebaker films, Google and Skype “hangouts”, private screenings, and other exciting offers. We’ll delve into that in part two of this article.

Here’s a description of “Unlocking the Cage” from the Kickstarter page: “Follows attorney Steve Wise’s fight to give animals personhood rights and break down the legal wall separating them from humans … For the past two years we have been following an animal rights lawyer, Steve Wise, who is attempting to break down the legal wall that separates animals from humans. You might have recently read about Steve and his organization, the Nonhuman Rights Project. This past December they ignited a media frenzy when they filed the first-ever lawsuits demanding limited animal personhood rights for four chimpanzees in New York State. Tommy, a 26 year-old former film actor living in a garage on a used trailer lot, became their first plaintiff … We hope that by exploring Steve’s lawsuit and illustrating the legal and ethical questions it raises, “Unlocking the Cage” will contribute to the evolving debate about our society’s relationship to animals and, more importantly, why we should protect them. We are very excited about this project. It’s a personal story of a man with an uncompromising need to change the system, a story that we want to tell from start to finish. Please join us and help make it happen."

I spoke with D.A. Pennebaker and Associate Producer Julia McInnis over the phone recently about the film.

“Charles Darwin said two things that really fascinated me,” Pennebaker told me. “One is that animals, like people, feel the one same thing in common, and that is pain. The second thing he said about animals is not that they believed in a god, but they could see beauty. I think in the next hundred years, people will really try to communicate with animals, and find out what is going on in their minds.”

“A story about our protagonist, Steve Wise, was recently on the cover of the New York Times Sunday Magazine,” McInnis said, “and the story was about the work of his organization to get legal rights for non-human animals. I think it’s worth mentioning that part of what threw Penny into this was how much of his life he has dedicated to justice for animals. It’s really his passion, his raison d’être, just like music is for Dylan. For a lot of Penny’s characters for his films, he looks for people who are just completely passionate and talented about some ‘thing.’ They are kind of like heroes. Steve is a hero for what he’s doing, just a Dylan is a hero to so many people. Groundbreaking as well.”

A lot of work has been done so far, but more needs to be accomplished. “So far, we’ve filmed the background work Steve has done for his lawsuits,” McInnes said.”We filmed the initial filings, and what we have left to film are scenes with scientists who have done research on chimpanzee cognition. We also have to film Steve’s legal appeals that will take place in the fall.”

At this point, there’s no way of knowing where the story will go, or how long it will take. “The problem is not just us or the story,” Pennebaker explained. “It depends on the courts of law, and they move very slowly. The movie can’t be done until Steve has a chance to argue his case. Whether he wins or loses obviously matters to him and a lot of chimpanzees, but either way, it’s a film about somebody whose passion is to change things in favor of animals. Just the fact that he’s going in front of three courts in New York state is going to raise some issues that otherwise would never appear, so its worth his doing it, and certainly worth our filming. And we have permission to film in at least one of the courts. If he does it, it’s revolutionary.”

And evolutionary.

“Yes! Animals are companions on this planet, not necessarily our feedbags. It should be handled a little bit more respectively.”

I mentioned there appears to be a turning of the tide, globally, on many social issues, possibly due to the prevalence of social media. “I noticed that too,” agreed Pennebaker “Everybody now knows what everybody in the rest of the world is thinking. They may be doing some terrible things in spite of that, but the fact is that common knowledge kind of leads you to what to whole thing is about. Animals are not things to ride on, or eat. One of the things we found out as we filmed with people who dealt with chimps, and with all animals, and it’s really incredible, is their levels of intelligence that we don’t recognize right away. They have to power of recall, which is what the Kalahari Bushman used to have before the Brits educated them in high schools. The fact is that they can look at a number for a tenth of a second, and remember it! They can look at a bunch of numbers and look at all of them. Well, that’s kind of incredible!”

And they also deserve their day in court.

In part two, we will delve into the collectable items being offered to those who pledge money toward the film. In the meantime, watch the embedded video, and check out the official Kickstarter page.

(Thanks for Mojo magazine's Michael Simmons for making this happen.)

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