'War Room' Directors Making Animal Rights Documentary

UPDATED: The subject of D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus' next project says that certain animals, including porpoises, elephants, whales and primates, deserve fundamental common law rights.

For their next project, renowned documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus – husband/wife directors of The War Room, the Oscar-nominated 1993 look at Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign -- will spotlight a lawyer on a mission to gain legal personhood for nonhuman animals. The duo are following Steve Wise, president of the Nonhuman Rights Project who teaches animal rights jurisprudence at several law schools. The project will initially focus on certain animals that show "a capacity for autonomy and can act intentionally, which is something courts care about," Wise tells THR.

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Dolphins, whales, elephants and great apes, he notes, should have some fundamental common law rights, including bodily liberty (that they "can’t be put in cages," says Wise) and bodily integrity ("we can't cut up and eat them"). Pennebaker, known for his 1967 Bob Dylan concert tour film Don't Look Back, says he was lured to the project by the unique issues Wise and his work raise. "The idea that animals have some kind of legal redress is an interesting idea because it not only deals with the animals themselves but also with the amazing complexity of law in this country. This doesn't mean chickens should vote, but somehow the idea of eating chickens in a 100 years might be thought of like people eating each other."

Adds Hegedus: "We'd like to see it end up in a courtroom which will make it a very dramatic film. What makes it interesting for us is to have a person like Steve who is totally passionate about it. He's just very obsessed in trying to do something legally. That's what we look for in a film."

The pair -- whose most recent documentary was 2009's Kings of Pastry -- see the subject matter as being in the cultural zeitgeist right now and say they have been struck by the number of law students and volunteers who have been drawn to the project. "I think it strikes them as a new liberating cause. We finally are coming to grip that to really share a planet, we can't just use animals to feed us. I think we're going to learn somehow to converse with them and it seems impossible now but I know this woman who does these things with porpoises and has been recording them and playing them back. She's learned all kinds of things that nobody knew. You have a creature that's very much advanced in ways we can't understand unless we really put ourselves to it. I don't think that this is out to prove that animals are people. But they have all sorts of intellectual capabilities. One of the most famous bonobos has been taught an amazing amount of sign language," says Hegedus. Adds Pennebaker: "It's just recently figured out that sperm whales in different pods have different accents."

Pennebaker and Hegedus -- who met the lawyer through the film’s producer Rosadel Varela (Control Room) -- have been filming Wise for the past six months. Next year Wise plans to start filing cases in pursuit of the goal. Says Wise, who has been animal protection lawyer for 32 years: "I began to realize that the fundamental problem was that nonhuman animals lacked the capacity for any rights. They were simply legal things in the law. A legal thing exists for the benefit of legal persons, which are us. It took years to try and think about the best way of devising litigation that would lead to nonhuman animals becoming legal persons." Frazer Pennebaker is co-producing the film with Varela.

Right now, he's focusing on specific cases to bring before courts and continuing to investigate which states have laws most favorable to the project’s cause. "We intend to litigate under the common law. Judges make the common law and they can unmake it. They do not need to interpret a statute or constitution. They have the right and the duty to change the common law as they see fit in light of modern experience, morality, and scientific discoveries. The legal rule that all animals are legal things was created hundreds of years ago, when there were human slaves and no one knew how extraordinarily complex were the minds of many nonhuman animals. The time has come for courts to bring the the law of personhood for nonhuman animals into the 21st century. We're trying to bring our strongest cases involving a single nonhuman animal and have that animal declared a legal person. Right now we're thinking of bringing two suits at one time, say there will be an elephant as a plaintiff for one or a chimpanzee or orca for the other."