In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered on the street in Queens, New York by a random assailant with a knife. A newspaper story, which later led to a book by famed editor A. M. Rosenthal, contended that at least 38 of the residents in the area ignored Kitty’s screams and did not contact the police.
Since that time, this story has inspired novels and has been the subject of numerous sociology lectures. The phenomenon has been considered an example of how modern society has become callous to the suffering of others. It has even been dubbed the “bystander effect” and “Genovese syndrome.” But is it true?
A more recent article that questioned the accuracy of the original story caused Kitty’s brother, William Genovese, to want to investigate the circumstances surrounding his sister’s death. Understandably, after Kitty’s murder, his family largely turned their backs on it and didn’t want to talk about it, so he had many questions. This led to the making of the documentary, “The Witness.”
In the film, we see William getting around without either of his legs. We eventually learn that he lost both of them during the Vietnam War. He joined the military largely as a reaction to his sister’s death and the newspaper story. During the making of the documentary, he has to come to the terms with the fact that he may have lost his legs for a lie.
This multi-layered story is fascinating, heartbreaking, and filled with surprising elements. William is only able to come to a few conclusions during his investigation. One thing appears clear: Some people did indeed call the police the night of his sister’s murder, and the journalist who originally reported the story manipulated it for his own gain. It even appears that the reporter did so with the blessing of Rosenthal. This is a scathing indictment of Rosenthal’s journalistic integrity.
We watch as William seeks people who lived in the area the night his sister died, and he interviews them about what they recall. In the process, he finds out some things he never knew about his older sister – that she was a lesbian, for example. He meets with her lover, a woman who was devastated by the loss but never had a chance to meet anyone in Kitty’s family until the making of the documentary.
William even attempts to get an interview with his sister’s murderer, Winston Moseley, who is still in prison. Moseley turns William down, but William ends up sitting across from Moseley’s son in a very uncomfortable conversation, during which we see how much the son has rationalized the whole situation in his mind. The film culminates in a bizarre letter from Moseley to William.
William Genovese comes across as an exceedingly fair-minded, gentle man, and you can’t help but root for him to get to the truth, even as his siblings urge him to let it go. Understandably, they find the whole endeavor to be painful.
“The Witness” is a haunting documentary that has stayed with me for a number of reasons – the love of a brother for his sister, the desire of a writer to make a story even more interesting than it really was, the ways we turn away from pain, the ways we decide not to get involved in the pain of others, and the lies we tell ourselves.
There’s no trailer yet, but watch for this documentary when you have a chance to see it. It screened at the 2015 New York Film Festival.