Revelatory History: Our Review of ‘The Witness’

Posted in Movies, Theatrical by - June 19, 2016
Revelatory History: Our Review of ‘The Witness’

If it’s an unfamiliar story, it will be shocking and disturbing from the start. That was the initial reaction of everyone who learned that one day in 1964; Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens in New York City screaming for help, as neighbours and bystanders ignored her pleas and didn’t call the cops. Nearly 40 people saw the attack, didn’t ct, and as a result, the Kitty was murdered when the killer realized no one was trying to stop him. It outraged a nation and was never to be forgotten.

Except, it didn’t really happen like that.

Decades later, Bill Genovese, Kitty’s older brother,  has set out to find these witnesses, to understand exactly what happened that led to his sister’s death that has become a symbol, a piece of crime lore. And just like stories passed down over the years, it’s been distorted to make a point. Even the initial story is full of holes.

Details were sketchy it seemed, and those available weren’t of particularly interest to the family, seeking to accept and move on. That is, the 38 witnesses were never identified, and only a handful spoke at the trial. Because it was The New Year Times reporting, the public didn’t push back.

While going on a personal investigation of the murder, tracking down those supposed witnesses, Bill reflects on his time with Kitty and remembers his family’s past. Director James Solomon interviews siblings and relative, some of whom aren’t as ready to talk about the situation. One brother wonders why even bother at all – ‘she’s dead.’  A younger generation of family members only knows what they’ve read and now we know that could all be wrong. Bill meanwhile, is open and honest, matter of fact while still clearly chilled.

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Revelations abound during interviews – Bill meets with those who were labeled as among the 38, and they’re unaware. Elsewhere, conversations reveal that earlier reporting was entirely skewed, that poorly chosen words created a small picture that blew up as the nation got wind.

He is in fact the titular figure. The result of Kitty’s murder meant that a city was condemned, that a society was indicted, and those 38 anonymous figures, who may not have even realized they were being included, were vilified as careless and negligent. Instead, it’s Bill who is witness: to stories exaggerated for effect, to fear spiraling out of control, and to the general laziness and complacency of a society that doesn’t question anything.

While the murder itself is tragic, what emerges that is the most unnerving is a society’s love of a certain narrative. New York City neighbours being cold-hearted, abetting a young woman’s death was an easy story for journalists, politicians, and talking heads to get behind. It snow-balled into something that was not only easily accepted as fact, but held on to and told to anyone listening.

The Witness doesn’t have one big reveal – just multiple staggering disclosures, a well-executed and bothersome account of systemic problems of media hype, fear mongering, and morbidity. Where the film triumphs though is a greater point: it promotes a questioning spirit yes, but in its intimate chronicle shows that we should all focus not on death and the repercussions – but on life. Bill learns that Kitty’s, albeit cut terribly short – was vibrant, exciting, loving. It was something that no one really talked about.

 

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Anthony is a lover of a good story in any form, on any subject. Tirelessly navigating filmdom, he is equal parts an unbridled idealist and stubborn curmudgeon, trying to strike a balance between head and heart when it comes to pop culture. He pens stories about television, music, the environment, lifestyles, and all things noteworthy and peculiar.