The Witness is a powerfully messy film.
I choose that description not as a formal complaint but as a compliment to director James D. Solomon’s understanding of the material and its layers of emotion.
The film plucks at several heartstrings, but its key emotional note is the stubbornly implacable grief of Kitty Genovese’s brother, William. Fifty years after his sister was brutally murdered on the streets of Queens, William’s pain has scabbed over but not healed. How could thirty-eight witnesses hear her screams but do nothing to help? For decades, he’s been afraid to pursue an answer to that question, but now he says, “It’s worse not knowing the truth.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, given that Solomon is best known for writing the historical drama The Conspirator, the truths that William uncovers are more complicated than simple, scandalous version of events recorded in the history books.
In addition to setting the record straight about the alleged indifference of Kitty’s neighbors, the film also delves into other, equally incomprehensible mysteries. What would make someone perpetrate such a crime to begin with? William’s mix of curiosity about and repulsion towards Kitty’s assailant will be familiar to anyone who has been on the periphery of a tragedy. And the bitter truth, learned over and over again, is that knowing is not the same as understanding. In one of the film’s most infuriating scenes, a relative of Kitty’s murderer visits William and tells him that Kitty’s murderer has warned him not to visit William, implying that the Genoveses are a mafia family who may do him violence. (Why the mob would wait five decades and then kill the brother of the murderer rather than the murderer himself is not said. People will believe what they need to believe in order to justify their actions to themselves.)
Solomon’s attempts to set the record straight and William’s attempts to understand the incomprehensible are each enough to carry the movie. But a third strain is, poetically, the most moving. Kitty Genovese will always primarily be known–even to her family–as a crime victim. William reminds himself that she had a life, not just a death. The construction of a false historical portrait is the most bitter to those who are fighting against the fading memories of the real thing. When William reveals the origin of the iconic picture of Kitty with whom most of us are familiar, the impact is almost as devastating as the screams he pays an actress to recreate.
The story behind that photograph is an object lesson in the way our lives, not just our deaths, become shaped by narratives and perceptions that aren’t always of our own choosing.
I have mentioned before in these pages that because of my own life experiences, I fluctuate between ambivalence and antipathy towards films that dramatize true-life violence. For every work of art or masterful documentary that carefully and respectfully explores that brutal emotional impact of violence — In Cold Blood, Zodiac, Dead Man Walking — there are seemingly scores that feel voyeuristic (or would if we stopped to think about them).
My acid test for such films is to imagine myself in some afterlife state, watching the film with the victim portrayed. Would I feel ashamed that her terror and pain became my entertainment? Or would I imagine her feeling that some small portion of her pain was alleviated by knowing that others, including me, knew what had happened? That even though she was alone and seemingly abandoned at that point, no truth remains hidden forever?
The Witness opens August 21, 2016 in Durham, North Carolina. If you can’t see it there, keep an eye out for it on DVD.