Interview with Emily and Sarah Kunstler
Sisters and filmmakers Emily and Sarah Kunstler speak with one voice. They are so in sync in vocal tone and philosophical outlook that it is almost impossible, on the tape recording I made of our interview, to tell who is making which point about their late father, lawyer and activist William Kunstler. Their new documentary “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” opened at Cinema Village on November 13.
Concerning the idea for the film Sarah explained, “I think it was about building an adult relationship with him…He died before we could sit across the table from him and kind of be adults together. All of the stories we’d heard of his past were just that, stories. We saw this as an opportunity to really go behind the stories and meet the people and have a fuller experience of his past than what we just heard about as children.”
Emily picked up the story explaining that “…we decided to make this movie when we were in out late twenties. It was 10 years since our father passed away. We thought that’s about the time when you can really begin to look back at your family and your parents and your upbringing critically…with an adult perspective…We had been making films together about the criminal justice system…We were trying to think about what to do next…We started thinking about our father and his optimism and what inspired him and how he kept going and the people that he connected with. A lot of our films are about racism in America today and he was vehemently anti-racist and that was really his guiding principle throughout his life.”
Sarah told me about her father’s background. “He was a Jewish lawyer in the 1950s and early sixties and I think that at that time in America there was a lot of anti-semitism at the big firms and if you were a young Jewish lawyer you either had to join a Jewish firm, start a Jewish firm or go into practice for yourself. So possibly being an outsider in that sense made it possible to make kind of unconventional choices.” Those unconventional choices for Kunstler included a long career representing clients that ran the gamut from Martin Luther King, Jr. to John Gotti.
Regarding some of his later client choices Emily explained that during their teenaged years, “We were very conflicted because he had told us of all these stories of these heroic feats of his past (the civil rights movement, representing the Chicago Eight, representing the Native Americans at Wounded Knee) and it was so different from what we were seeing day to day and what we were seeing on television (Kunstler representing suspects in the first World Trade Center bombing and El Sayyid Nosair, accused of shooting Meier Kahane) and what we were hearing from our peers at school…Did I really understand (at age 15) the nuances of his choices and the value he saw in particular cases he was taking? No, I didn’t.”
In conclusion I was told, “The main thing we learned from him was the importance of standing up for what you believe in and for taking a principled stand and not being afraid of those moments in life when you’re challenged to do that. Every single one of us has those moments where we’re going to be challenged. It could be in small ways, it could be in big ways. It could be (something) that nobody else notices or knows about but (it is) in those moments when we need to be people of courage. Those are the moments when we’re tested and if we do nothing no one will know.”