Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Kitty Genovese revisited in James Solomon's must-see documentary, THE WITNESS

New Yorkers and ex-New Yorkers of a certain age will probably always remember the story of Kitty Genovese, the young woman who, back in 1964, was stabbed and left to die by her Kew Gardens, Queens, neighbors as, or so we were told, some 38 witnesses either saw and/or heard her cries for help -- but did nothing. The story went "viral", so to speak, even back then, and Kitty became the textbook case representing a cold, heartless city where the people cared about nothing except themselves and their own well being. Well, as they say, think again.

What we learn from this riveting and truly wonderful labor-of-love -- for both the film's director, James Solomon (shown at right), and Kitty's younger brother, Bill Genovese (shown below), the latter of whom takes it upon himself to investigate as thoroughly as possible what went on that fateful night -- will surprise and move to joy and tears anyone who, like TrustMovies, pretty much accepted the original story at "face value." Instead of being a kind of "origin tale" of soulless urban dwellers, THE WITNESS is a story of dreadful, disgustingly stupid journalism, in which the author of the original and lengthy New York Times newspaper article which appeared two weeks after Kitty's murder, Martin Gansberg, as well as the Times' A.M. Rosenthal (who manged to pull a best-selling book out of the bogus story), are two of the prime villains.

Not that there were no other bad journalists who reported on the story. Most of them simply followed the shoddy lead from the Times. Not only the journalists who covered the crime but the police who handled it the night of the murder itself appear to have dropped certain balls. What brother Bill turns up, as captured by filmmaker Solomon, is revelatory and finally moving and joyous. We don't simply get something much closer to what really happened in this account -- if that were all the film provided, it would be more than enough --

we also learn about Kitty's killer, Winston Mosely (above), and even meet the man's grown son, Steven, who, as most sons would, tries to find excuses for his father's behavior.  Who the murderer was and why he did his needless deed is as unsettling as anything you could ask for, and the more we learn, the more disturbing the whole scenario grows.

The most important aspect of this eye-opening documentary, however, is Kitty herself (shown above and below), and what we finally learn about her. Once you've experienced The Witness, no longer will Kitty Genovese be simply a victim of the crime that brought worldwide attention to the supposed callousness of New Yorkers. Instead, Kitty comes at last alive, as we finally learn of her life rather than only of her death. We meet her family (then and now), learn of her work, her friends, and her lover. Despite all the surprises/revelations along the way, the documentary is eventually a wonderful and fitting memorial for a young woman whom I suspect most of us would have been delighted and fortunate to know.

The Witness, from the relatively new distributor, FilmRise, opens this Friday, June 3, in New York City at the IFC Center, and then on June 17 in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Monica Film Center, as well as other major cities. Click here then scroll down to see all currently scheduled playdates, cities and theaters.


An added note: During the documentary and toward its conclusion, the director does something unusual, using an actress to "perform" a kind of audio-visual re-enactment of Kitty's last hours. The re-enactment is a humdinger of sorts: creepy and unsettling in ways both expected and not. Yet it is not quite original. A few years back the fine Belgian filmmaker Lucas Belvaux made a fictionalized version inspired by what was then accepted as the real Kitty Genovese story, with the venue changed to France. The film was called 38 Witnesses (38 Témoins), aka One Night in its worldwide English title, and it is a haunting retelling that deals with guilt and responsibility, as well as the acceptance of both. The film ends with this same kind of unsettling re-enactment, the result of which has enormous effect one of the "witnesses" and his wife. This award-winning movie was shown in New York City as part of the FSLC's Rendez-vous With French Cinema in March of 2012, but was unfortunately never picked up for theatrical or (so far as I know) video release in the USA.

I can't help but wonder if Bill Genovese and/or James Solomon happened to catch that film at its three public screenings (at the FSLC and the IFC Center), and if so, what they thought of it. 38 Témoins would make a terrific double bill paired with The Witness. Maybe someday, at some revival house, if such venues continue to exist down the road, we'll get to see it. (Above are its two stars, Ivan Attal, left, and Sophie Quinton.)

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