William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
The new documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” is a personal and public portrait of the titular lawyer and activist. The film was made by the late attorney’s daughters, Emily and Sarah, and is narrated by Emily. Their story is a compelling one about a complex man who also happened to be their father.
“Disturbing the Universe” seems to be a project that Emily and Sarah have been making all of their lives. There are home videos of them, as little girls in the back yard, pretending to introduce their father on a TV show, a garden hose serving as microphone. We also hear tape recorded interviews they conducted with Kunstler as kids and even see the teen-aged Emily and Sarah being interviewed on the cable news channel NY1 along with their father. In addition to the family’s own footage and recordings the documentary has been expertly edited integrating photographs, narration and an incredible collection of archival and news footage. Interspersed with these are modern day interviews with Ron Kuby, Jimmy Breslin, C. Vernon Mason, Alan Dershowitz, Margaret Ratner Kunstler, Phil Donohue and others from Kunstler’s life.
Kunstler is presented as a devoted father and someone who, in his relentless pursuit of justice, to quote Emily, “had stopped standing for anything worth fighting for,” at least by the time she and her sister were old enough to understand their father’s work.
The documentary brings out how Kunstler’s long career went from civil rights at one end of the spectrum, before his daughters were born, to clients who were controversial and unsavory at the other end. Kunstler’s clients included John Gotti, several suspects charged in the first World Trade Center bombing, and Larry Davis, a drug dealer charged with shooting six New York City policemen. In contrast Kunstler’s early causes included fighting for civil rights with Martin Luther King. Later, in 1969 – 1970, he represented the famed Chicago Eight, anti-Vietnam War protestors. The ensuing trial and the judicial abuse Kunstler experienced that was directed at him and his clients changed Kunstler from a liberal to a revolutionary, from someone more concerned with justice than with law and order.
Emily describes how she and Sarah feared for their lives as a result of back lash against their father over his clients. One of these clients was El Sayyid Nosair, for whom Kunstler gained an acquittal in the assassination of Meier Kahane. The acquittal resulted in protestors demonstrating outside of the Kunstler home. Bullets arrived in the mail.
The daughters’ presence, and unique perspective as adults trying to reconcile with and understand a father who died when they were still very young is what lifts “Disturbing the Universe” from being on the level of, say, a good episode of “Biography” to being an exceptional documentary. The narrative is tight, educational and never lags while providing an intimate view of a fascinating man. Emily and Sarah Kunstler have made “Disturbing the Universe” with a fearlessness, honesty and, at points, skepticism that I think William Kunstler would have admired.
“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” opens on November 13 at Cinema Village in New York.
“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” directors Emily and Sarah Kunstler , 2009,
Arthouse Films, 85 minutes, unrated