Directed by James Solomon
Opens June 3 at IFC Center
You’ve no doubt heard the story. In 1964, Kitty Genovese was murdered in Kew Gardens, Queens. According to news reports, 38 neighbors witnessed the three-part attack. Apparently, none of them called the police, not wanting to get involved. Supposedly, had police or paramedics come after her first scream was heard, she could have been saved.
The appeal of this incident for journalists and cultural commentators is easy to see, a telltale story of urban decay and eroding values that still resonates 50 years later (it even popped up as a plotline in the most recent season of Girls). The documentary The Witness takes it as its subject, and—as you might expect—finds that things are not so simple as the popular telling of the story. However, as the story’s elemental power is derived from its simplicity, what’s good for the historical record here doesn’t make for a compelling viewing experience. If—as the film suggests—many of the witnesses couldn’t have seen the attack from their vantage points, and one did call the police (as she claims; she adds the police told her it had already been reported), and another went to help the wounded Kitty, then much of the symbolic heft vanishes, and all that’s left is a grisly murder.
The problem is, after The Witness argues the crime wasn’t a culture-defining moment, it then tries to make it one by trying to tie it to other societal issues. Some, like the underexplored look at sensationalist journalism, fit neatly into the subject, but the links to others are haphazard. The film briefly connects the murder to the post-Stonewall era by indicating that Kitty, a lesbian, was a loner because of anti-gay prejudice. It also brings up the racial animosity of 60s New York, with someone suggesting her killer was pushed to violence by the discrimination he had endured; someone else says that no one called the police because many of the witnesses were concentration camp survivors, and thus paranoid about authority figures. All these ideas just get the briefest of mentions, meaning they feel dubious regardless of their validity.
The film rarely probes or challenges, even on key themes like the lingering impact of violence on victims (Kitty’s brother Bill, who was 16 in 1964, is the narrator and host). Little original reporting is evident, and there’s little method to the film’s construction or editing. It devotes considerable running time to animated segments, a break from talking heads that’s appreciated in theory but which adds nothing in practice, as well as to Bill making small talk with his sources or uninsightful interviews (Kitty enjoyed joking with her friends, and once visited new parents in the hospital). Given the subject, slight running time and the film’s years-long production, this kind of padding is beyond perplexing, especially since history that’s actually interesting and relevant (the murder helped create the 911 system) is excised almost completely.
Given its scattershot approach, the film winds up having surprisingly little to say about the murder. The basic takeaway is that it was tragic, which is certainly true, but not enough to base a movie off of.