NYFF 2015: The Witness
Bill Genovese has spent over 50 years haunted by his sister’s murder. When Kitty Genovese was killed in 1964, her case became widely known when The New York Times reported that 38 neighbors had witnessed the attack and not done anything to intervene. This seemingly impossible negligence is the first of many preconceived notions regarding Bill’s sister’s death that begins to crumble under closer questioning in the documentary The Witness. With an unrelenting determination to figure out exactly who his late sister was and the true circumstances of her murder, Bill embarks on a several year journey with documentarian James Solomon to track down the witnesses of Kitty’s life and death.
The Witness benefits greatly from the true events that it depicts providing several layers of intrigue. At the start, Bill looks to poke holes in the initial New York Times article by speaking with any witness he can track down through the public record. In the process, he discovers failures on the part of the police, as well as new aspects to his sister’s life he had never known. Even Bill Genovese himself is fascinating as a subject, a Vietnam War veteran who lost both of his legs, now often refusing help from those around him. Continually, the documentary delves into tangential chapters devoted to the living family of witnesses or Kitty’s work as a barmaid. Its scattered focus can become frustrating as The Witness leaves its audiences with several loose threads to ponder over—in a situation not entirely different from Bill’s.
While the documentary occasionally suffers from its indistinct presentation, the succession of stunning details keeps the case compelling. Bill’s personal need for closure drives him past the point where almost anyone would give up, yet he confront uncomfortable situations with courageousness. The Witness’ cathartic ending is an appropriately melancholic note for a film so fixated on gruesome material, but finding satisfaction from this documentary relies on how highly you value closure.