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"I tell my law students I'm an animal rights lawyer, but I'm lying. I'm really an animal protection lawyer, because animals have no rights to defend in a court of law," says legal scholar Steven Wise. Now he wants to change the course of history by bringing animals under the same "tent" of legal rights that protects humans. Crazy? Not according to a whole new generation of law students, anxious to put his ideas into practice.

A LEGAL PERSON, the new feature-length documentary from directors Donna Thomas and Paul Garstki, takes us into the mind of Mr. Wise, as he in turn takes us into the minds and lives of chimpanzees and bonobos (his first candidates for personhood), making the points that he insists will inevitably cause the legal world to come around to his way of thinking.

In parallel, we examine the daily lives of three exceptionally interesting chimpanzees, in three very different situations.

Grub is a rescued chimpanzee heading a family group at a Florida sanctuary, and Imoso is a free-born chimp in the Kibale Forest of Western Uganda. Sanctuary director and ape advocate Patti Ragan and noted Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham take us on a tour of these individuals' lives and the impact that Mr. Wise's ideas will have on them. Ultimately, we also witness the plight of Roger, a former circus chimp in a roadside zoo.

This unconventional antidote to the usual narrated documentary uses vintage chimp imagery, old movies and dolls, live footage and interviews to create a visual buffet. Extended, lingering shots, seldom seen in TV "animal" documentaries, allow viewers to see for themselves the detailed behavior of these magnificent non-human animals. We see chimpanzees as they laugh, play, hunt, and communicate, and make their way in a world that makes little room for them. Mr. Wise systematically demolishes the ancient and arbitrary legal wall between humans and all other animals, while the simple and liberating logic of his proposal to extend certain legal rights to chimpanzees is made plain and convincing.

running time: 99 minutes