The Witness screens at 6pm on Tuesday, October 6, and at 8pm on Wednesday, October 7 as part of the documentary spotlight within the 53rd New York Film Festival. The film is currently without US distribution.
Though James Solomon gets the directing and producing credit in The Witness, the real guiding light of this documentary is Bill Genovese, brother of Kitty Genovese, whose brutal murder outside her Kew Gardens apartment in 1964 has become synonymous in many people’s minds with bystander apathy. And while the film begins as an examination of the facts of the case—which has become a subject of dispute since the New York Times published an article in 1995 raising questions about its own reporting in their initial 1964 article that brought the case into the national spotlight—it eventually becomes much more: procedural as self-therapy.
Bill, it turns out, hasn’t been able to put the murder of his sister behind him. But we soon discover that he has much more in mind than trying to set the factual record straight. When he discovers that, among other things, Kitty was gay and that she had been thriving as a bar manager before she died, he realizes just how little he really knew his sister. The Witness, then, shifts into an investigation of her life, with Bill meeting up with both bar patrons who knew her and the girlfriend she had been seeing before she died. And then Bill turns to Kitty’s convicted killer, Winston Moseley; he’s especially interested in finding out whether there’s anything to the claims he’s made over the years that he has since reformed.
The Witness thus becomes much more than an attempt to discover the people behind the oft-shamed “38 witnesses” that reportedly ignored Kitty Genovese’s cries for help. It expands into a more unflinching look at the hidden depths and complexities of human beings in general. Not even Bill himself is spared. Though Solomon is undoubtedly a willing participant in Bill’s investigative-cum-therapeutic alleyways, he includes moments that question the usefulness of his quest, as some of his family members pointedly wonder, either to Solomon’s camera or directly to Genovese himself, whether he should just leave well enough alone. All of this leads to a climactic sequence in which Bill enlists an actress named Shannon Beeby to reenact his sister’s final dying moments as he tries for one last-ditch attempt at empathy. Whether you ultimately believe this to be a necessary final stage or a step too far, there’s no escaping the piercing devastation of Beeby-as-Kitty’s cries, as well as the cathartic power of this gripping, painfully personal, and deeply humane documentary.