Monday, June 13, 2016

“The Witness”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center for the new documentary “The Witness”, about the infamous Kitty Genovese murder.


When a young woman is murdered, the media reports that 38 witnesses to the crime did nothing to help – but what happens when this all turns out to be a lie?


On a cold March night in 1964, Kitty Genovese was brutally murdered on a street in the New York City borough of Queens.  Much was made of this because it was so widely reported in the news not only in New York City, but around the country, as well.  The nation was horrified to learn through media reports that despite this 28-year-old young woman’s cries for help in the street, no one was willing to help her.  According to newspaper articles, there were 38 witnesses to the crime and none of them either came to her aid or called the police. 

Some 40 years after the crime, The New York Times published an article that re-examined the crime; based on the reporter’s investigation, the conclusion was that the version of the story originally reported by The Times was factually incorrect, either accidentally or intentionally.  While the story suggested there were 38 eyewitnesses, they may have really been “earwitnesses” instead – that is to say, they only heard the crime rather than saw the crime.  Upon reading this, Bill Genovese, Kitty’s younger brother, decided to do some investigation of his own; still bothered by the crime that essentially ruined his family, Bill found it hard to believe that there were 38 people who refused his sister help. 

However, there were several matters that hampered Bill’s investigation.  For one thing, since so much time had elapsed since the killing, many of the supposed witnesses had died; also, again due to the passage of time, those who were still around and willing to speak had some trouble remembering many of the exact details of this night.  Perhaps the most daunting challenge Bill faced was his own physical limitation; having joined the Marines during the Vietnam war, he had both of his legs blown off and had been confined to a wheelchair for decades.  Despite all of these obstacles, can Bill get to the bottom of this incident?       


Remarkable, painful and informative – these words are perhaps the best fitting description of “The Witness”.  What little most of us know about Kitty Genovese is only regarding the last half hour of her life when she was stabbed and lay dying in a pool of her own blood.  Through this documentary, we learn what a full and happy life she was leading right up until its premature end.  Astounding revelations include her brief marriage and lesbian relationship, not to mention the fact that she had been previously arrested for her involvement in bookmaking.  Shocking to watch is Bill’s meeting with the adult son of the man who spent his life in prison for Kitty’s murder; it turns out his father filled his head with misinformation about what happened that night. 

If there is any criticism of this documentary, it would be the way in which its ending was handled.  First, the only person who actually came out to help Kitty was a woman named Sophie, who lived in the same apartment building and was her good friend.  Bill was able to meet with Sophie, but the meeting was somewhat anticlimactic.  The other scene had to do with Bill hiring an actress to recreate Kitty’s attack where she was in the street screaming for help at 3AM.  In the context of the movie, it was a little difficult to understand exactly why Bill did this; it wasn’t until afterwards in the question and answer session (below) that he explained the people in the neighborhood had been previously informed the filmmakers were going to do this so as not to alarm residents.  He further clarified that it was done so he could personally witness what his sister must have gone through in her final moments. 

Following the screening, there was a brief question and answer session with the director and Bill.  Bill said that although the early portions of his investigation were emotionally taxing, the longer he continued, the more he was able to accept closure on his sister’s story; he felt that in some way, this documentary keeps Kitty alive, at least in his own mind.  Director James Solomon said that while most people see this as a mystery, he sees the film as something of a sibling love story; Solomon added that he was able to commiserate with Bill’s sense of loss because during the shoot, he lost his own brother to leukemia.   

The Witness (2015) on IMDb

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