By Daniel Barnes
*Opens Friday at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
I recall a college Sociology professor giddily, almost lustily retelling the story of Kitty Genovese’s murder. After all, it’s the stuff of college Sociology professors’ wet dreams. In 1964, the bar manager (“barmaid” in the press) was stabbed to death outside of her apartment building in Queens. She screamed for help the entire time while dozens of neighbors watched and heard and did nothing.
Only no, not exactly, but whatever, close enough, book deal. Kitty’s story got told and retold over the decades with little regard for the hard facts of the case. It became a ready-made symbol for public apathy and moral culpability through inaction. However, for her younger brother Bill Genovese, Kitty’s death only served a symbol for overwhelming and unresolved grief that nearly tore his family apart.
The Witness documents Bill’s decade-long obsession with uncovering the true story of Kitty’s life and death, and we see how her story was mangled and manipulated by overeager and unethical caveman journalists and embraced by a public all too eager to believe the worst about humanity. The hard-won moral lesson: never trust anything printed in The New York Times or taught by college Sociology professors.
Even brother Bill does a little too much manipulating, as this otherwise righteous and restrained documentary makes an ill-advised veer into The Act of Killing-style self-awareness in the final sequence, hiring an actress to recreate Kitty’s screams at the scene of the crime. It’s a loud, false note at the end of an otherwise solid film.
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