Thursday, December 8, 2016

THE WITNESS (a documentary)


With the exception of the ending (which I'll get to in a moment), this is an excellent film that is really about critical thinking.  There is much that Bill Genovese explores about the circumstances around his sister Kitty's murder by Winston Mosely, but the part that caught my attention the most (looking beyond the lines of the film, so to speak) is to do with the media. 

It's ironic that the very reason that one would be interested in watching a film about this story - about one of those infamous murders that is more about the people who did *not* step in to try and stop it or call the police in faster time - is called into question by the main subject.  The Witness is a wonderful plea for critical thinking in the guise (or not even that, just part of it) of an obsessive detective story.

The film supposes we know already about why this is such a big deal today, but it lets us know anyway; Genovese, 29 years old, was stabbed repeatedly on the street in Kew Gardens, Queens, NY, but that wasn't the big story - it was the "38 eye-witnesses" who saw what happened and did nothing substantive to stop the killer or to get help (supposedly it was half an hour before police arrived, if not longer).  But Bill, her younger brother, has seen over the years details in the case cracking under the weight of scrutiny (there also have been lo lack of books or articles or scholarly writings about it, not to mention the laws passed since then about bystanders doing things to help in response time).  So Bill goes through police documents, interviews authors and media people who reported on the case - all the way up to Mike Wallace (filming for the doc started in 2004) - and, indeed, there were holes in the narrative.

Not always 'eye' witnesses but 'hearing' kind, not necessarily 38 people (where did that number come from exactly is one of the questions posed over and over), and if she died alone, which, we find out, was not the case as a friend went to her when Kitty went inside a building and collapsed on the floor of the hallway.  There are some grisly details, but this is not something that is as salacious in that aspect like, say, The Jinx or something.  The Witness in the title may refer to Bill, who was not there at the time (the family lived elsewhere as he was still a teenager at the time), but he is a witness now, and always will be.  It's closer in a way to something like Jim Garrison (the character, not necessarily real life) in the movie JFK, as one question leads to another and then five more and more from there. 

This isn't to say this is a conspiracy movie, at least not exactly.  What I found so engrossing about the aspect of media scrutiny in this case is that it is still a problem and concern today; we just came off of a year where fake news was rampant, but in actual journalism there's always the danger of falling into embellishing details, of trying to seize on certain details to make much larger headlines (it's questionable even if people would know who Kitty Genovese was, outside of the neighborhood or her family, if it wasn't for such explosive headlines and details that were, arguably, wildly exaggerated), but it's also on the public, I think the movie and Bill could argue, to question critically and think about what is being presented as the facts.

While it's fair to say such a case has made Kitty Genovese into a figure for positive change - to make sure the truth of something is heard (and also, an interesting detail, at least a few if not more of the people in that Kew Gardens apartment complex were victims of the holocaust, who knows if they would want to get into more trouble being involved) - the truth always makes things extremely complicated.

This documentary does such a good job of showing us Kitty's life before the murder through Bill's investigating - an inspiring subject if nothing else because his disability, being a double amputee from a Vietnam injury, and yet it's never made into a big deal, it simply is what it is, a fact that we see before us and it's fine as he never makes light of it aside from the story of how it happened - that it's a shame the movie has to end, or at least come to a climax, that feels much to take in.  After all of the time that Bill's spent looking through all of the details he can get, all of the police documents, calling up people, flying to talk (in audio, no video, and animated, nice touch) with Kitty's lesbian lover, everyone who has something to say here including Mosely's own preacher son (maybe the best scene of the movie), he concludes to bring some small sense of closure he has to... recreate the scene of the crime. 

Not completely as far as blood and murder of course, but hiring an actress and having her recreate the blood-curdling screams on the street and full physical reenactment, for Bill (as he watches on the street with multiple cameras), and then ending with the two hugging it out.  I understand what this is supposed to be for Bill, a moment where he can fully put himself into Kitty's shoes, or at least the full moment of that situation, but how we see it in *this* movie, feels like it goes too far.  It may make more sense to others, but it has an exploitative side to it, especially after, you know, 50 years and part of the idea being, as his own family expresses, that everything Bill is doing is a 'what good will that do?' sort of situation.

Up until that point, I would disagree with the family, and even to a small extent I get the final point, though it veers a little into reality-TV (and more-so than what happens with Mosely's son, which feels just right and what needs to be said, surprisingly so, on both sides).  And all the same I would still recommend this film to people interested in knowing more, and that critical thinking is an aspect of society that needs to not be put by the wayside, even (or particularly when) it comes to a case such as Kitty Genovese.  The smallest details come out as new revelations here, down to that photograph that was used by the media in showing what she looked like - which was, oddly enough, her own *mugshot* from a bookie arrest.  It's certainly one of the essential documentaries of 2016, flawed as it might be.

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