The Witness, directed and produced by James Solomon, William Genovese, and Melissa Jacobson, with Trish Govoni as director of photography, is an evocative tribute to Kitty Genovese, one of America’s most infamous and enduring crime victims. It is an intense, surprising and at times disturbing account of her brother Bill’s eleven-year search to learn the truth about the cold night in 1964 when 28-year-old Kitty was fatally assaulted near her home in Kew Gardens, Queens. It also is a poignant portrait of a man on a mission to make peace with a horrible family trauma that became an international symbol of apathy.
Bill is a thoughtful and soft-spoken man in his late 60s who conducts his search from his wheelchair, an indirect result of his response to a cultural call to action that his sister’s death immediately generated. After joining the Marines a few years later, he lost his legs in an explosion while leading his troops on a dangerous mission in Vietnam. “But I had people who helped me,” he says in the film. “I survived.” We briefly meet the members of his family — his siblings Vincent, Susan, and Frank — as well as his wife Dale and their children, who do not completely understand but still support his quest to learn the truth about what happened to “Aunt Kitty.” His quiet persistence and strong determination command our attention throughout the film, whether he is navigating the small, ordinary details of daily life, pulling himself up a mountain of narrow stairs to enter her neighbors’ apartments, or asking the big questions of who saw or heard what the night his sister was killed. We see him meticulously detailing the available facts, people, places — in at least one scene he admits to being “obsessive” — as he tracks down and interviews participants in the construction and deconstruction of the story of his sister’s awful death. He gently but firmly questions disparate commentators such as the few Kew Gardens neighbors still alive and able to talk with him, such as Hattie Grund; the murderer’s son, Steven Moseley; and local as well as famous journalists such as Mike Wallace. In one of the best scenes of the film, Bill quietly confronts legendary New York Times editor A. M. Rosenthal, the man responsible for the story’s creation. Rosenthal does not defend his version nor pretend that “the 38 witnesses” really existed, but rather shrugs off any controversy by insisting that the story had a significant impact on people worldwide. In other words, in Rosenthal’s view, the end justified the means.
The filmmakers insure that our focus is on Bill’s journey, blending poignant personal remembrances of Kitty by an old classmate, Ilse Hirsch-Metchek, with powerful accounts of the night of her death more than fifty years ago. Kitty’s aged neighbors and their now adult children, such as Michael Farrar, challenge the “official version” of the story. As viewers, we become witnesses to Bill’s efforts not only to learn the truth about the final moments of his sister’s life but also to reconstruct the vivacious, interesting person Kitty was. We listen as he interviews Mary Ann Zielonko, the woman he always knew as Kitty’s roommate but learned in 2004 was her lover. We see him talking with Kitty’s good friend Angelo Lanzone and a couple of “the guys” from the neighborhood bar she managed; they briefly disagree about who knew what about her sexuality. He concludes that the adored Kitty he knew from her weekend visits to his family’s home in Connecticut was a much more complex person. She was an iconoclast and adventurer also known for her generous spirit. The filmmakers beautifully interweave family photos and old footage of home movies with contemporary images of Bill in sunshine and shadow, at home and on the road. Creative illustrations also add powerful images, as does the music that underscores the film.
I would have liked The Witness to include women’s commentary on the social power of the Kitty Genovese narrative. Its impact on women in particular was profound. For more than half a century, it has operated as a cautionary tale, one that warned of the possibly extreme costs of female independence at the very moment in the mid-1960s when feminism was being asserted. As I learned in researching my book “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, the New York Times, and the Myth of Urban Apathy, the blockbuster front-page Times article that blamed dozens of her neighbors for Kitty’s rape and murder was at best exaggerated and at worst invented. In the interest of creating a powerful parable of the dangers of apathy at a time when urban America in general — and New York in particular — was undergoing huge social and cultural changes, Rosenthal set in motion a simplistic story that made headlines. It focused on and vilified a neighborhood yet said little about the murderer and almost nothing about the victim, effectively erasing her from its telling. Given the outsized effect the parable had on women seeking independent lives, Kitty’s erasure was especially problematic.
Some of us have worked to restore the person that Kitty was to the center of the story. Bill Genovese, James Solomon and all those involved in creating The Witness show the world what a vivacious, interesting person she was. They have given us – cultural historians like myself as well as the general public and Bill’s own family — the gift of seeing her as a multifaceted young woman rather than allowing her death to overwhelm her life in perpetuity. They also took the risk of complicating a well-known and oft-repeated narrative, one that used her tragic ending to warn of a problem that didn’t exist: that of urban apathy.
Marcia M. Gallo is Associate Professor of History at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, the New York Times, and the Myth of Urban Apathy.
Director and Producer: James Solomon
Executive Producer: William Genovese
Co-Producer: Melissa Jacobson
Director of Photography: Trish Govoni
Editors: Gabriel Rhodes and Russell Greene
Composer: Nathan Halpern
Animators: Moth Collective
Premiered at New York Film Festival October 6 and 7, 2015