June 1, 2016. More than 50 years ago, the murder of Kew Gardens resident Kitty Genovese captured the public’s imagination. The murder became a strong symbol of urban apathy when it was reported that 38 neighbors witnessed (either by seeing or hearing) the attack and murder, from their apartments, and did nothing. The media, led by no less an authority than “The New York Times,” reported that no one called the police or came to Kitty’s aid. In fact, I first learned about the murder of Kitty Genovese via a 1975 made for television movie provocatively entitled “Death Scream,” featuring a “who’s who” of popular 1970s actors.
When Kitty Genovese was murdered, late at night, on a Queens street, on March 13, 1964, I was about a month shy of my second birthday. Obviously I was not old enough for the event to have had a personal impact on me. Over the years though, I, like most, came to know the name Kitty Genovese and what it symbolized. Now, having seen “The Witness,” I realize that I have had only a very surface awareness of the incident.
“The Witness” is a compelling documentary about the murder of Kitty Genovese told from the point of view of her brother, Bill, who was 16-years-old at the time of the murder and 12 years his sister’s junior. First time documentary filmmaker James Solomon followed Bill Genovese on an 11 year odyssey, starting in 2004 (40 years after the incident), to find the truth about his sister’s killing.
Bill’s obsessive search for the “truth” involves finding surviving witnesses (and relatives thereof), police reports, reporters who originally covered the story, as well as Bill’s speaking with members of his own family. Interview subjects include Charles Skoller, the attorney who prosecuted Kitty’s murderer Winston Moseley, reporter Gabe Pressman, famed investigated reporter Mike Wallace and many others. In 1964 Wallace hosted a 30-minute long radio special about the case, which was entitled “The Apathetic American.”
What we get in “The Witness,” and what are presented so intelligently, are three very important things:
1. Media Pluralism. In the college sociology class which I teach on media and popular culture, I talk about “media pluralism,” the idea that all points of view are represented in the media (something which rarely happens). Bill’s search for the “truth” brings out a side of the reporting of his sister’s murder that had not been told before in media accounts.
2. “The Witness” addresses the malleable nature of “truth” – the stories, or narratives, that are told to us, via the media, and which we, in turn, tell each other and how these mold our perceptions.
3. We learn more about the life of Kitty Genovese than had previously been told through the media, which had focused, almost exclusively, on the last 30 minutes of her life. In this day and age of short youtube clips in which we may learn about only one small moment of a person’s life, it is very important to know that there is much more to that person’s existence than what we see in a clip, or, in the case of Kitty Genovese, a news report. The story of “The Witness” is a very human one, about a brother who wants to know what happened to the sister he loved.
Director Solomon, together with editors Gabriel Rhodes (an editor on “The Tillman Story,” another fine documentary about media and truth) and Russell Greene have very effectively combined interviews, archival footage, animation and a determined main character in Bill Genovese, to create a fascinating piece of media about media, the nature of memory and, most important, the nature of “truth.”
“The Witness” opens on June 3 at IFC Center, located at 323 Sixth Avenue.