The murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese on a deserted street in Queens, New York in 1964 reverberated around the globe and came to symbolize the arrival of a less innocent era. According to a front-page story in The New York Times published two weeks after Genovese’s funeral, 38 people watched her protracted assault from a 10-story apartment building but did nothing to help. The story became an emblem of the moral bankruptcy of urban communities, permanently damaged New York City’s reputation and inspired a new branch of psychological study in bystander apathy based on a principle known as the “Genovese Syndrome.”
The problem with the story of Genovese’s murder is that almost none of it is true.
Director James Solomon’s documentary The Witness isn’t the first work to challenge the veracity of the Times’ original story, but it’s the only one to fully debunk key elements of it — to the extent possible given the passage of more than 50 years. The film is not the work of a bold investigative journalist correcting others’ mistakes. Solomon was granted permission to film Genovese’s now-retired youngest brother, Bill Genovese, as he conducts an amateur investigation into circumstances surrounding his sister’s death. Bill’s only hope was to find peace of mind and closure for himself and his family.
Those humble beginnings give The Witness an organic quality that sets it apart from many staged-for-the-camera documentaries. Both a moving meditation on grief and loss and an edge-of-your-seat, true-life detective story, the film also paints a long overdue, humanizing portrait of Kitty not overshadowed by the lurid details of her death or the unfounded cultural symbolism associated with it.
Solomon and Bill Genovese (who is credited as executive producer) worked on the film for 11 years as the truth of what happened to Kitty gradually came into focus. Cross-referencing details of trial transcripts, heavily redacted copies of original police detective work and journalistic research conducted long after the murder, Bill finds surviving witnesses to his sister’s death and uncovers crucial information neglected or ignored by previous investigations.
Solomon does an excellent job transforming Bill’s highly personal journey into an emotionally engaging film. The director creates settings in which Kitty’s family and friends open up for the camera, sharing their stories and finding much-needed catharsis. Where other documentaries damage their own credibility through dramatic re-enactments, The Witness employs understated, beautifully animated line drawings created by award-winning animation studio Moth Collective. The film builds an antidote to decades of sensationalized coverage of Kitty’s tragic tale.
That coverage constitutes a second mystery — beyond the facts surrounding Kitty’s murder — that must be addressed. How did The New York Times get the story so wrong, and why has the rest of the news media mostly repeated the erroneous reporting for decades?
There are no easy answers to these questions in The Witness. A rampant desire for career success among Times staffers likely had something to do with it, along with the paper’s singular status and reputation. Whatever the underlying causes, there are tough lessons to be learned from a terrible failure and the damage it caused to individual lives. In an era when political figures devote themselves to delegitimizing the news media, the need for a free press to report the truth looms larger than ever before.
The Witness begins an exclusive run at Zeitgeist Films next Friday, Sept. 9. More info here.