Documentary Review: ‘The Witness’ Is A Compelling Look At One Man’s Quest To Find Peace With The Past

Greetings again from the darkness. Remember that time you told yourself “I don’t want to get involved”? We live in an era when the phrase “If you see something, say something” is more catchphrase than active philosophy, and it’s pretty easy to justify looking the other way by thinking “It’s none of my business.” In 1964, twenty-eight year old Kitty Genovese was brutally attacked and murdered in Queens. The New York Times reported that the same man attacked her three times, and that no one called the police, despite her screams and 38 people witnessing the attacks over a half hour. Her story became the symbol for “bystander apathy” and led to development of the 911 system and the “Good Samaritan Law”.

Forty years after the attack, the New York Times examined their original story, and it’s that piece that brought together filmmaker James D Soloman (he wrote the screenplay for The Conspirator) and Kitty’s brother Bill. Their goal was to research the horrible events of that night and determine once and for all if the legendary story is fact or a case of media sensationalism. With its flashbacks to multiple news stories over the years, the film begins as a procedural and evolves into Bill’s personal journey of emotional turmoil in regards to his big sister’s life and death.

Bill was only 16 years old when Kitty was killed; and three years later, he lost both legs while serving in Vietnam. It’s his calmness and intelligence that we are so drawn to as he makes his way through the crime scenes, interviews witnesses/neighbors/family members, and examines as much of the existing evidence as possible. His fascinating journey finds him crossing paths with Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes”, Abe Rosenthal (the NY Times editor who ran the original story and wrote a book about the case), the police detective who investigated the case, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney for Kitty’s confessed murderer.

As compelling as the complete film is, there are a few segments that really stand out. Mr. Rosenthal’s attitude and lack of remorse for running such a sloppy story is sickening – even 50 years after the fact. It’s an extraordinary example of how the media can manipulate a story for ratings, and of how little things have changed over 5 decades. A face-to-face sit down with the Reverend son of the confessed killer is both awkward and frustrating, while also enlightening as to how family members can revise history in order to live with it. Finally, Bill’s visit to the home of Kitty’s old friend and neighbor Sofia is heartbreaking as the woman remembers comforting Kitty in her last few moments of life.

Bill discovers numerous conflicts to the original NYT story … there were two attacks, not three; the number 38 for witnesses seems to have been fabricated; most of the witnesses were ear-witnesses, not eye-witnesses; and there is every indication that multiple calls were made to the police … thereby muting the argument that neighbors were too apathetic or frightened to get involved. While none of these points are especially surprising to us, it’s Bill’s story now and we can’t help but feel for him.

Mr. Soloman expertly structures the film so that we can experience both the highs and lows of Bill’s efforts. We hear the recording of Kitty’s former roommate as she shed lights on Kitty the person, rather than Kitty the victim. Bill reads the letter from Rocco, Kitty’s ex-husband as he declines an interview.

We are in the room when Bill is questioned as to whether he is part of the infamous Genovese crime family, and we see Bill tackle the trial transcripts with the words “heard screams, saw nothing” repeated many times. If this is a study on social behavior, it may be more pertinent to media motives than human reaction … but this isn’t the place to bash the media – it’s a compelling look at one man’s quest to find peace with the past.

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