In James Solomon’s riveting documentary, The Witness, the path to the truth is just as complex as one man’s obsession with finding it. For years Bill Genovese has been trying to make sense of the disturbing murder of his older sister Kitty. An anchor he has not been able to free himself of, every decision he has made in his life has somehow been influenced by his sister’s memory. At least the version of her that he knew. He has become so obsessed with his sister’s death that he no longer clearly sees the finish line in his quest for answers. As if stuck in his own endless maze, each new open door leads to a room filled with even more questions than the one before it.
Bill’s search for closure is made even more complicated by the fact that the narrative of her death took on a life of its own in the public eye. The murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 sent shockwaves throughout New York City. Stabbed outside her apartment in Kew Gardens by Winston Moseley, the attack made national headlines when it was initially reported that there were 38 witnesses who chose not to intervene. Viewed as a chilling example of societal apathy in Abe Rosenthal’s infamous New York Times piece, the cautionary tale of her death eventually overshadowed Genovese’s once vibrant life.
By the time, decades later mind you, that the New York Times published a new investigative story refuting its original claims in Rosenthal’s article, the damage had already been done. The 38 witness narrative had already ingrained itself in popular culture, and the lie became the only truth that anyone could see. Determined to uncover the real story behind his sister’s death, Solomon’s suspenseful film follows Bill as he embarks on a fact seeking journey 50 years after the murder took place. Attempting to track down the alleged 38 witnesses, officials and journalist close to the case, and those who knew Kitty, Bill is reluctant to face the fact that in order to unlock the answers he seeks, he will need to take an honest look at himself in the process.
Exploring the way our personal narratives can be hijacked and reshaped by others, The Witness is as much about reclaiming the life of Kitty Genovese as it is about finding out what really occurred the night it was taken. Solomon smartly conveys how easily the 38 witnesses story became a sign post for change, but shattered Genovese’s legacy in the processes. She was no longer a woman, a sister or a lover, just a victim. The irresponsible reporting on the parts of both the police and the media, which placed so much emphasis on the night in question, rather than on Genovese herself, caused even Genovese’s family to “almost erased her from [their] lives.” They were starting to loose sight of who she was outside of the murder.
Thankfully, Solomon’s film shows that Genovese was much more than a mere victim. She was a strong and loving individual with an infectious personality whose life, as it turns out, had its fair share of secrets. The film is most gripping when Bill is forced to take a cold hard look at how far he is willing to go for answers, and the possible pain that comes with ripping the emotional Band-Aid off of deeply entrenched wounds. The final moments of the film, in which Bill revisits the scene of the crime, is both gut-wrenching and cathartic to watch. The Witness is a powerful and moving film about family bonds, grief, obsession and the lengths some go through to salvage the memory of those we love, while hopefully not losing themselves in the process.