Monday, May 27, 2024

Whatever Wednesday: ‘The Witness’

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The Witness is a 2015 documentary about the infamous murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese. Kitty was stabbed multiple times outside her Kew Gardens apartment building. As she was stabbed she cried for help but the bystanders and witnesses did nothing, or so the story goes.

Unlike most true crime documentaries, The Witness isn’t trying to solve anything. The police caught the murderer, Winston Mosely. At no point in time does James Solomon or William Genovese, one of the main players in The Witness, ever doubt that Mosley is the murderer. There is no mystery to solve.

William is Kitty’s younger brother. He was 16 when she was murdered. Kitty’s death, not surprisingly, has haunted him and his family for the majority of their lives.

A large part of The Witness is a sort of cinematic therapy for William and his family. Kitty’s death is an obsession with him. Solomon follows him as he tries to piece together what happened that night. William is searching for truth, not for who killed his sister, but for something much deeper and more complicated.

Kitty’s death was the subject of a New York Times article, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police; Apathy At Stabbing of Queens Woman Shocks Inspector” by Martin Gansberg. The article would go on to be the subject of numerous sociological papers, as well as a stump line for politicians for generations to come. Except, what if it wasn’t true?

William Genovese starts his own investigation, not because he doubts the article or even the authorities. No, Genovese is driven by how little he knows about his sister. He and his family tried to move past her death. They didn’t go to Mosely’s trial, nor did they follow it in the papers.

In so doing, William realizes, they never really mourned Kitty. He begins to wonder what she was like after all the family lived in Connecticut and Kitty lived in Queens. Kitty and William were close, but after she died he tried not to think about her—the circumstances around her death were too painful and disheartening to bear. 

But once William starts to dig, he discovers holes in the reporting. The Witness is about the search for truth, but not the truth that’s easy to define. The messier kind, the kind that makes everything more complicated.

Solomon follows William as he talks to reporters from Mike Wallace to the legendary Abe Rothman, who was the Editor of the New York Times when the article was published. Rothman considers it to be one of his proudest accomplishments.

But right off the bat, William realizes the numbers seem off. Better than that, he stumbles upon a woman Sophia Farrar, a neighbor of Kitty’s. She was with Kitty when she died.

Part of the trauma the Genovese family suffered was the lie that no-one had tried to help save Kitty, that she died alone. Murder is a tragedy but to learn that a loved one could have been saved and people sat by and did nothing must be a traumatic life event. William even confesses to Solomon that Kitty’s death was why he joined the military to fight in Vietnam. He didn’t want to be like Kitty’s neighbors and just sit by and do nothing.

But hearing Kitty didn’t die alone stuns William and Solomon. Why wasn’t that in the article? But then William interviews another neighbor and learns that they had called the cops. Digging through the records he discovers that indeed, someone had called the cops. Though strangely he could only find a record of one phone call, disputing the officer’s claim that they had received “a bunch of calls” about Kitty’s murder.

The Witness could have easily been a documentary about trying to unravel the New York Times article and interrogating the lack of skepticism in elite journalism. But it can’t be because The Witness is first and foremost about Kitty. Even if he wanted to, William can’t let her go, and so he trudges on, trying to understand this woman he had spent so much of his life trying to forget.

The interviews, both with William and the rest of his family, along with Kitty’s neighbors, are superbly edited. Solomon and William weave together the night like detectives opening a cold murder case, only they have no interest in solving the murder. They are compelled by something deeper and in some ways more forceful, obsession.

William’s siblings are baffled by his involvement both with Kitty’s case and the documentary. They understand his grief, but when William goes about re-constructing her murder over at the dinner table you can see them visibly wincing. For them, her death is a tragedy but they have moved on, but for William, it is a tragedy that haunts him.

The Witness is spellbinding but not because it uncovers corruption, though it does uncover a lack of rigorous questioning of the truth by media elites of their colleagues. It uncovers a portrait of Kitty Genovese, a woman who has been known for how she died rather than who she was as a person.

It’s that aspect of The Witness that I found inescapably moving. Watching William discover things about his sister that he had never known helps him to form a picture of her that’s something more than her death. Little things such as the picture used in the New York Times article being her mugshot. 

She was arrested? Once. For what? Gambling.

But the most striking thing William learns is that Kitty was a lesbian. Kitty’s roommate was her partner, her lover, Mary Ann Zielonko. Mary Ann refuses to be filmed but consents to be recorded. The cinematographer, Trish Govoni, and Solomon opt for sketches of William’s and Mary Ann’s hands, detailing little moments as Mary Ann tells of their courtship and other memories. It’s here that William learns that the couple shared a dog, a gift from Kitty after a fight.

After Kitty’s death, William’s father came to Mary Ann’s apartment and demanded the dog, she refused. A few days later she woke up and the dog was gone. William interrupts and confesses that the family briefly had a dog for a few days, shortly after Kitty’s death. But his mother said it wasn’t right and it didn’t belong to us.

I’m so used to true crime documentaries wrestling with corruption and injustice that when William starts to look into Winston Mosely, there’s a part of me that assumed that he would be innocent. But, again The Witness isn’t about that. William meets with Mosely’s son, now a preacher, and learns the Mosely family thinks the Genovese family was a crime family that framed his father.

It’s impossible not to watch The Witness and not think of Aira Kurosawa’s Rashomon. It is another film about the complex, elusive certainty of truth. William uncovers a lot of things but by the end, the picture of what happened is only made more fractured but somehow more complete. 

There’s a line from Rashomon, “I don’t understand my own soul.” It perfectly sums up The Witness. By watching the film we become witnesses to a man attempting to heal the wounds and regret of his own life. It is a primal quest with no real satisfactory conclusion.

Towards the end William hires an actor, Shannon Beeby, to play Kitty. He has her re-enact Kitty’s death while he watches from across the street. At first, I thought it was a misstep on Solomon and William’s part. It seemed performative, too manufactured.

But then Beeby screams into the night and I must admit I flinched. William, alone in his wheelchair across the street, is gutted by the sound. Afterward, they hug as he weeps.

Solomon and Govoni spliced together home movie footage with pictures from Kitty’s home life. By the end of The Witness, they have given us a nuanced portrait of Kitty, fleshed out by Williams’ recollection along with others. Kitty starts the documentary a stranger, a woman defined by a single tragic moment in her life, made mythological by the New York Times.

Strangely, what William has done is rescued his sister from an eternity of being a mere abstract idea or symbol rather than a flesh and blood person. He has given her life and form in memory of a brash-talking, goofy, lesbian bartender who loved her family, friends, and partner. William’s obsession gives a fuller view of Kitty, full of contradictions but the kind which exist in nature. Because we are, all of us, slightly different, around different people.

The Witness understands that trauma and tragedy mark everyone it touches and we all in our own way must eventually deal with it. William eventually stops looking into Kitty’s case, if only because he has learned all he wishes to know. He knows Kitty loved and was loved, and by understanding Kitty’s soul, and those that knew her, he has begun to understand his own.

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Image courtesy of FilmRise

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