“What do we owe to all our fellow beings? This is a question that each human being must strive to answer, one moment at a time.”
That’s a quote from a letter that Bill Genovese wrote to the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, expressing condolences to the family of Winston Moseley, the man who murdered Kitty Genovese, Bill’s older sister, outside her New York City apartment in 1964. The crime became infamous after a front-page New York Times article that claimed 38 of Kitty Genovese’s neighbors witnessed the crime and did nothing to help. Sociologists wrote books about the case as an example of big-city apathy, of an unfeeling modern society where Americans felt they owed nothing to their fellow beings.
But is that really what happened?
James Solomon’s haunting but healing documentary “The Witness” spends a decade alongside Bill as he delves into his sister’s murder. A crime story, a media story and a family story, “The Witness” played Tuesday at the Wisconsin Film Festival and clearly had a profound impact on many in the audience. Solomon himself began to choke up during the post-show Q&A talking about his own brother, who passed away during filming.
What Genovese and Solomon found was that the 1964 New York Times story got a lot of things wrong. Only a couple of the neighbors actually witnessed the crime; most only heard screams and didn’t realize they were hearing a lethal attack in progress. And the 28-year-old Kitty did not die alone, as media reports had put it, but in the arms of a friend who had rushed down to help her.
In many ways, the errors of the Kitty Genovese story did some good; it helped expand the 911 emergency system and Neighborhood Watch programs nationwide, and likely many readers horrified by the story vowed to help people whenever they got the chance. Bill Genovese said his anger at the neighbors' supposed apathy made him the sort of person to get involved and help others, and it was in that spirit that he enlisted in the Marines and went to Vietnam in 1967. He lost his legs in the war, but has no regrets.
In finding out the truth about his sister’s life and death, Bill helped himself and his family to reclaim her life, after decades of denial and silence.
“She was a fascinating 28,” Solomon said. “But the power of that story, and the horror of that story, compelled the family to close the narrative of her whole life. The death consumed it.”
The film ends with two of the most extraordinary scenes I expect to see in a documentary this year. The first is an emotionally charged scene when Genovese meets with Rev. Steven Moseley, Winston’s son. He wants to offer forgiveness, but Moseley has constructed his own narrative of lies and errors to deal with having a murderer for a father.
The second extraordinary scene comes when Genovese hires an actress resembling his sister to reenact her murder on the exact spot where she was killed. As her screams fill the night sky, and Genovese watches from across the street, the moment is chilling and powerful, a final, extreme endpoint for a man who has obsessively spent his life hunting for “the truth.” He can go no further, and must finally lay his burden down.
Solomon is a screenwriter who wrote the screenplay for the Robert Redford film “The Conspirator.” He originally planned to write a screenplay about the Genovese murder for an HBO film, but when that project fell through, began collaborating with Bill Genovese on a documentary.
The format of the documentary is a little strange, essentially letting Genovese tell his story in the first person, with Solomon an invisible presence. By the end, the filmmaking seems to dissolve, with Genovese talking directly to us about his journey.
“I wanted the audience to be as close to Bill as they possibly could,” Solomon said. “I couldn’t even unpack how we influenced each other.”
“The Witness” is getting a theatrical release this summer, although it’s unclear if it will make it back to Madison screens.