Directed by: James D. Solomon
This Witness came out earlier this year, probably too long ago for a relevant review, other than to advise whether to rent/purchase it or not. This is really more a reaction of one documentary filmmaker reviewing a documentary. I can be very critical of manipulative filmmaking in the doc genre. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to docs. Filmmakers must fight the urge to give in to bias and the urge to make themselves a part of the film. If you do that then I’m ready to at least look at your work.
To cut to the chase, The Witness moves me more than any film of any genre this year. Can I see through a scene or two of manipulation, one filmmaker to another, yes. This film doesn’t manipulate with an agenda outside of trying to put the viewer directly into the shoes of the subject. The film follows on Bill Genovese as he spends years trying to learn truths bout his sister’s historic murder. Kitty was stabbed to death in a parking lot in New York in 1964 with at least 38 witnesses that did nothing, not even call the police. The New York Times blew the story up, focusing more on the lack of any action from the witnesses than on the actual murder. These events were responsible for the creation of the 911 system that we take for granted today.
Every decision that Bill has made his entire life has been influenced by not only the loss of his sister but by the lack of action from bystanders. The film begins with narration from Bill, and it feels like he is essentially making a documentary about his research into the night that changed his life. Within the first chapter of the film it suddenly becomes apparent that the subject of the film isn’t the witnesses but Bill himself and there are other filmmakers driving the movie. Bill desperately needs closure and he begins seeking it by trying to learn how much truth there was to the stories the New York Times wrote, and why no one helped his sister. The sorties layers begin to peel back revealing more pain and loss, some subtle and others overt. The literal weight of the trauma has suffered is truly heartbreaking. It would be doing a disservice to the viewer and the filmmaker to reveal too much about what Bill finds, and what the viewer witnesses as a voyeuristic part of Bill’s family, now grown several generations since Kitty’s death.
One of the people Bill talks too al but says that he’s glad things happened the way they did after Kitty’s murder because we are better off for it, assumably because of 911. Now he doesn’t say that Kitty’s murder is a positive thing, just the controversy that followed it. Kitty’s death directly changed our country 50 years ago. Quietly in the background of it her younger brother Bill was destroyed and the family was ripped apart and no one noticed. I don’t shed tears easily, but I did for Bill, and for Kitty.