The 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese by a knife-wielding attacker shook New York City not only because of its graphic violence, but because it was subsequently reported that 38 nearby residents witnessed the assault and chose not to intervene. That narrative was promoted by editor Abe Rosenthal at the New York Times, and turned Genovese into a cautionary example of societal apathy — including for her brother Bill, whose resultant desire to make a difference compelled him to enlist for duty in Vietnam, where he lost both his legs. Forty years later, Bill sets out to unravel the mystery surrounding his sister’s demise, an obsession director James Solomon details with precision and complexity in “The Witness,” a multilayered nonfiction work about myth, self-deception and reclaiming life from death. Following its New York Film Festival premiere, the pic should have strong cable TV potential.
Motivated by a new Times report that refuted many of the paper’s earlier claims about the case, Bill embarks on a one-man crusade to separate fact from fiction. That takes him back to the scene of the crime in Kew Gardens, Queens, where residents of the adjacent apartment complex reportedly turned a blind eye to Kitty’s blood-curdling pleas for help as she was stabbed by Winston Moseley, who fled but, recognizing that no one was going to come to his victim’s aid, returned 30-45 minutes later to finish the job. That slaying shocked the city and the country, thanks mainly to Rosenthal and the Times’ efforts to cast the incident as emblematic of a modern culture too indifferent to aid those in need.
Bill’s quest takes him in multiple directions, from searching for the identities of the famed “38” (most of whom didn’t testify at Moseley’s trial, but were ID’d by the producer of a 1979 “20/20” report), to friends and acquaintances who knew Kitty (including her ex-husband Rocco and her lesbian lover Mary Anne). It even leads him toward Moseley, who’s serving a life sentence for the crime and another, earlier homicide, and whom Bill reluctantly tries to interview.
Amid this journey, what’s exposed, first and foremost, is the lingering scars that grave traumas leave on survivors. “The Witness” addresses the idea that Bill is wracked by survivor’s guilt over having been saved by Marine comrades in ‘Nam while his sister was disregarded by her fellow neighbors and friends. Moreover, it candidly suggests his mission is a means of finding out if his own rejection of the “38’s” apathy was predicated on a falsehood concocted by an editor driven to simultaneously preach from a lofty pedestal and to sell more papers. If that’s true, Bill fears, then he may have lost his own legs (to a Vietnam land mine) for nothing.
Since Kitty’s death had a significant impact culturally (as seen in relevant clips from “All in the Family” and “Law & Order”) and practically (it helped spawn the emergency 911 call boxes spread throughout New York, as well as night-watch groups like the Guardian Angels), “The Witness” spends less time focusing on what the legend of the “38” says about media ethics than it does on its effect on Bill himself. Only halfheartedly supported by the rest of his family, who don’t share his obsession with revisiting bygone horrors, Bill reveals that he barely knew anything about his older sister and her adult experiences in the big city — an ignorance shared to an even greater degree by his kids, whose knowledge of their infamous ancestor begins and ends with the story of her death.
As such, “The Witness” functions as a project of not only confrontation but resurrection, as Bill’s sleuthing sheds new light on Kitty’s personality, romances and career, and thus finally re-emphasizes her as a flesh-and-blood person rather than just a famous victim. Shot in an off-the-cuff handheld style that engenders intimate empathy with its subject, and energized by line-drawn animation sequences that evoke the intertwined-facts nature of its tale, the film serves as Bill’s frank, painful attempt to face the past in order to discover what truly mattered about it in the first place. In the process, it paints a vivid picture of the myths we tell ourselves and each other, and the way in which they ultimately do more to obscure, rather than to illuminate, life’s most important truths.