Arts & Culture News

The Witness' Director James D. Solomon on Why a 52-Year-Old Murder Is Still Important

Fifty-two years ago this July, 28-year-old Kitty Genovese was walking home in New York City when she was brutally murdered. Hauntingly, it took two separate stabbings to kill her: After the first attack she ran screaming through the streets for help, but no one came to her aid. Conspiracies surrounding her murder are the subject of a new documentary, The Witness, which screened in Dallas last Friday at the USA Film Festival, with director James D. Solomon and Genovese's brother, Bill, in attendance.

The conspiracy began with a now debunked New York Times article that reported 38 people had seen the crime from a nearby apartment building, but all closed their windows to Genovese's cries for help instead of calling the police. The article served as the basis for A. M. Rosenthal's 1964 book Thirty-Eight Witnesses: The Kitty Genovese Case

Genovese's death is still relevant because it led to the coining of the term "bystander effect." How many times have you yourself witnessed a crime or car crash and looked the other way or kept driving?  

We spoke on the phone with filmmaker James D. Solomon — whose feature-length documentary follows Bill as he attempts to track down and speak to the alleged witnesses of his sister's murder, as well as the killer himself (who died two weeks ago) — about how the film has impacted Bill, and how false narratives can powerfully influence our lives.

Dallas Observer: Was it the New York Times article revisiting Kitty's murder that made you and Bill want to make a documentary on the case or did you two already have plans in motion?

James D. Solomon: I am, by profession, a screenwriter. I, by interest, am typically drawn to stories we think we know — iconic stories, iconic American stories we think we know. The last movie that I wrote that was produced was a movie called The Conspirator that Robert Redford directed. That was the story behind the story of the Lincoln assassination. Most people know that John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theatre but they don't know that there were actually multiple attacks that night including on the secretary of state. Someone was there to kill the vice president and hundreds were rounded up. It's, again, an iconic story we think we know but there's a story behind the story.

I also did a miniseries about New York, a miniseries for ESPN called The Bronx Is Burning, which is a story about the New York Yankees in 1977, Reggie Jackson and Billy Martin. It was a scripted eight-hour series starring John Turturro. That also was a story behind a great sports story. In the late 1990s I got interested in Kitty Genovese. The book that you referred to, Thirty-Eight Witnesses, was being reprinted and I read an early version of the reprinting of that, although it had already been out, and I took a look at it. I thought it would make for a very interesting basis for a screenplay.

At that time all that was known was essentially the iconic 38 witnesses story, the essential story being 38 watched for more than a half hour and that none called the police. That was sort of the story we all knew. I began to research — that's my background as a reporter, I tend to research very extensively the projects that I screenwrite. I began to research and because it hadn't been that long ago, unlike the Lincoln assassination where I couldn't track down the people who had lived the story because they had long passed, in the case of Kitty Genovese at that time in the late 1990s it had only been 30-plus years, so I was able to start reaching out and finding people who had lived the story in some way or shape or form, and had been touched by it.

Along the way I met Bill Genovese. It doesn't take a lot to be immediately struck by how remarkable and inspiring he is. That was immediate. I also found that in talking to Bill that Kitty began to come to life and to come alive for me, and that he cared for her so much. That was immediate. I had a great affection and feeling for Bill. I also began to get a sense that there was something not quite right about the original story. 

I was collaborating on [an HBO project] at the time with a very fine documentarian filmmaker, it was going to be scripted, named Joe Berlinger. He's done some wonderful movies, Paradise Lost, Metallica. Joe and a writer named Alfred Uhry. Three of us were collaborating. Nothing came of that project at HBO. I put it down and I went back to my regular work. I maintained the connection with Bill although I didn't talk to him all the time.

Then in 2004, when the New York Times questioned the accuracy of its original account, Bill, who had retired a few years earlier, had the time and interest and inclination, [and] was motivated to find out for himself what happened, and he and I had a number of discussions in which we talked about my documenting his journey, and that's the genesis. It had been a relationship that preceded the New York Times account because I was doing a scripted film. I had a very strong interest and spent a lot of time in the late 1990s researching this — about a year or so. It wasn't until 2004 when the Times story came out that Bill was motivated to find out for himself what happened that night and allowed me to document it.

My reason for making a documentary is my first documentary film was I realized that the best way to tell Kitty's story would be through those who had known her in life or through her death rather than my writing a scripted film. It has taken now the better part of, off and on, over the course of 11 years to complete the film.

DO: Documentaries can move in unpredictable directions and in the movie Bill learns that many of the alleged witnesses have died. What backup plan did y'all have if none of them were available to speak, whether because they had died, couldn't be located or weren't interested in participating?

James D. Solomon: Well, what you do is cast as wide a net as possible to find as much information about Kitty and to find as many who knew Kitty in life or through her death. The film doesn't just focus on the witnesses, as you know. The film covers both those who were there that night, it covers those who told the story of Kitty Genovese's murder, and covers those who knew Kitty and were close to Kitty and were deeply and profoundly affected by the tragedy of her death. It's also in my mind, while it's very much an investigation, the film is also a love story about a brother reclaiming his sister's life from her death.

DO: I want to talk about the reenactment. I felt like it was Bill wanting to be with his sister for her final moments, her last 30 minutes. Was that its goal?

James D. Solomon: You would have to ask Bill because Bill is reenacting his sister's murder. The film is about, as I said, a brother attempting and seeking to reclaim his sister's life from her death. The film is very much about loss and coping with loss. I don't think we have seen many films that portray the effect of a violent crime on a family and others — witnesses, journalists — over a course of a half century as this film does. You see the effect of Kitty's very public death on these very private lives and that's I think one of the singular aspects of the film and what Bill was seeking to do was essentially move beyond the headlines and move to hear from the people who had been deeply affected by Kitty's death and by her life.

It's a very, very personal take on a very public story. To address your question of the recreation, Bill throughout is seeking to get as close to Kitty as he possibly can and that is both by talking to the people who knew her when she was alive, the people who covered her as journalists, the person who killed her, and also what her last moments were. It's an evolving process of trying to understand the [loss]. What I think Bill is doing, in part, is trying to answer the unanswerable questions of why. You should know that Bill, in Vietnam, was a scout. That was his job. That meant that he was always a few days ahead of his platoon seeking information. Bill's family still refers to him as a scout and he is always out there trying to find the truth. Bill is the ultimate truth seeker.

What you see in the film is Bill seeking the truth by any and all means he possibly can. He's always several days ahead of everyone else trying to find the truth and in a sense Bill unravels a story that we have all come to know one particular way. It helps us to understand why that story may have been created and also its consequences. Particularly its consequences on Bill and his family. We have never heard or seen the family's experience of what was a tragedy, never seen or heard from the Genovese family, their experience and the impact of this tragedy and this narrative, this story of Kitty's murder, so that is what the film is exploring, what Bill is exploring.

DO: There are a few moments in the film that made me rage and Bill had such a calm demeanor. Specifically when Kitty's husband, ex-husband, said "our relationship is forever going to remain a mystery." That really hit me hard.  Bill's calmness while relaying this was remarkable. At one pivotal moment, he says, "I'll know when it's over." Do you personally believe he has finally found closure? 

James D. Solomon: You would have to ask Bill the question of whether he feels it's over. My personal opinion about closure is that a loss like that is a lifetime process. It's ongoing. Coping with a loss and understanding why something may have happened is something we experience over the course of our entire lifetime. I do believe that Bill feels a level of peacefulness that comes from having sought answers, found people to talk to, and learned so much. I think when you begin to get a sense of who you are and where you come from and how things happen you begin to develop a greater sense of peace about yourself and choices you made. You should know that in the course of making this film, a film about a brother who lost his sister, my only sibling, my brother John, got sick, diagnosed with leukemia and died.

DO: My condolences.

James D. Solomon: Thank you. I mention that because if you're going to ask me the question of closure from a very personal standpoint because I'm also talking about sibling loss, in that respect, my sibling and Bill's sibling died for very different reasons ... My brother died five years ago and Bill's sister died 52 years ago. From my own personal experience, I have found that coping with the loss of my brother is an ongoing thing that I suspect I will be processing during the course of my entire lifetime.

I will tell you if somebody called Bill up today and said, "I knew your sister very well," Bill would want to go meet her. Or him. It's not like the film is completed and therefore Bill has no more interest in talking to someone who knew his sister. I do think that he has taken his journey to a place where he feels a level of peace borne of having done as exhaustive a search as you possibly could do 50 years after the fact.

You also asked me a question, what was the plan B if we didn't find witnesses. Well, Bill was out finding what he could find and open to whatever came. I think you make a very important point about his humanity. What makes him remarkable in so many respects is just what you spoke of — the openness and his willingness and his genuine compassion for others. When he hears things, or he's told things or he has obstacles, he has a capacity to understand the other person's position. When Steven Moseley says to him what he says in the film, you see in Bill such enormous compassion even though Bill knows what Steven Moseley is telling him is not accurate. He has enormous compassion for what Steven is saying and why it is important to Steven that he might believe that narrative.

The movie is very much about false narratives. It is about how the stories we tell, not only to others, but the ones we tell to ourselves, shape our lives. You probably have a photograph sitting at home, or on your desk, that you've created an entire story around and that story may not be true. It may not be true at all but to you it's true because it's the story you've created. It puts that photo in context. Therefore, it's as real to you as what actually happened on the day that photo was taken. In a sense, that's what the film is about. People, whether over the course of a half century, or on that particular night, create stories that help them live life. This film examines a lot of these stories that we all tell ourselves. That's why I think it's a really essential part of what this film is about. False narratives and the power of a false narrative on the lives we lead.
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