'The Witness': NYFF Review

The Witness Still - H 2015
Courtesy of New York Film Festival

This gut-wrenching doc is as deeply moving as it is enlightening.

James Solomon's moving documentary chronicles Bill Genovese's quest for the truth behind his sister Kitty's notorious murder.

Few films feel as cathartic as James Solomon's documentary The Witness, about the Kitty Genovese case, in which a 28-year-old woman was sexually molested and stabbed to death while a purported 38 witnesses did nothing to intervene. The catharsis is not for the filmmaker but rather for Bill Genovese, the victim's younger brother, who is the heart and soul of this gut-wrenching feature receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival.

In recent years the long-held tale of Genovese, described by her brother as "the symbol of bystander apathy," has been disputed. In a lengthy investigative piece published in 2004, The New York Times criticized its own original reporting, spearheaded by the then editor Abe Rosenthal, of the incident. This documentary provides substantial evidence that several of the 38 witnesses, whose names were uncovered in an earlier investigation by the TV program 20/20, did indeed call the police or shout at the assailant to stop. In one of the film's most moving segments, Genovese interviews a former neighbor of his sister's, who tells him that she cradled the dying young woman in her arms.

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Among the media figures who covered the case were Gabe Pressman and the late Mike Wallace, both seen in interviews here. Wallace admits that the story was "a media creation" to a certain degree, with both citing the power of the Times in its becoming accepted as truth.

But the film is less interested in exploring the facts of the case than in allowing Bill, who lost both his legs while serving in the Vietnam War, to come to terms with his feelings about his beloved sibling and her brutal murder. In the scenes in which he walks through his sister's old apartment, prowls her neighborhood haunts and, in the most harrowing sequence, sits in silent anguish as an actress (Shannon Beeby) recreates Kitty's dying screams and cries for help on the very site in Kew Gardens, Queens in which the 1964 murder occurred, he's a living testament that some psychic wounds never heal.

Along the way, he interviews his sister's roommate, Mary Anne, also her lover, who refuses to go on camera but who movingly tells him, "I slept with her shirt for a long time." Kitty's ex-husband, Rocco, declines to be interviewed, as does her killer, Winston Moseley, still serving a life sentence in prison. Moseley does write Bill a letter claiming innocence of the crime, which he blames on an "Italian mobster." In a bizarre encounter, Moseley's son talks to Bill about his father, defensively dodging his questions and claiming to be frightened to talk to him because he might be a member of the Genovese crime family.

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The Witness also serves to put a much needed human face on the crime's famous victim, most recognizable by an iconic, smiling photograph that we learn was actually a mug shot (she was once arrested on a misdemeanor bookmaking charge). Seen in vintage 8mm home movies, Kitty Genovese emerges as a vibrant, exuberant young woman whose violent death tragically came to overshadow her much too brief life.

Production: Five More Minutes Productions

Director/producer: James Solomon

Executive producer: William Genovese

Co-producer: Melissa Jacobson

Director of photography: Trish Govoni

Editors: Russell Greene, Gabriel Rhodes

Composer: Nathan Halpern

Not rated, 89 min.