The Witness: A Fresh Documentary about the 50-Year-Old Story of Kitty Genovese

The Witness Kitty Genovese Headshot.pngNo murder story gripped the world and molded it quite the way the case of Kitty Genovese did in 1964. Her death became tantamount to the human group behavior of consciously ignoring a person in peril, now known as the Genovese Syndrome. It’s still taught in schools and contemporary writers assimilate it to the Trayvon Martin shooting and the Syrian refugee crisis. But who was Kitty Genovese and what about those famed “38 witnesses” who lived in the Queens, NY, apartment complex across the street that were reported in the New York Times watching Kitty being stabbed over the course of 45 minutes and did nothing? Director James Solomon sought answers after reading the book, 38 Witnesses, which inspired “The Witness,” a compelling documentary opening June 3rd told through Kitty’s brother Bill (essentially ‘the witness’ the title refers to) that took 11 years to create.

Bill, who was just 16 when she died, investigates all reports, interviews living witnesses, questions articles written about his sister and even attempts to speak to the killer, Winston Mosley, who ironically died just two months ago. The group of witnesses was not of the selfie generation, but Bill, who is disabled, established a natural comfort with those he interviews and evokes fresh insights about that night and the beliefs of some of Kitty’s neighbors who convinced themselves they did try to help or saw nothing at all.

As the exploration unfolds, the film becomes a story about Bill Genovese, just as much as it is about Kitty Genovese. You aren’t going to get every answer about what happened that night she was brutally murdered, but new details and a gripping story unfold about a callous murderer who took the life of Kitty on a cold night in 1964. Some of it might have been hyperbole, but as James told, “It’s equivalent to a biblical parable that will live on forever.”

The Witness Kitty Genovese in dress 5-16Q: You wanted to write a screenplay about the Kitty Genovese case, which led to your meeting her brother Bill. Can you talk about how this became a documentary?

James Solomon I am a professional screenwriter; the last movie I did was called The Conspirator about the Lincoln assassination that Robert Redford directed, which actually took 18 years to make. This started as a screenplay in the late 1990s, and I read a reprint of the book 38 Witnesses, and I joined a group that pitched it to HBO and at the time they bought the pitch. So in the course of researching it I met Bill. It’s extraordinary because we only know her for the way she died, but he brings Kitty to life in a way no one I had ever met was able to bring her to life. Although nothing became of the HBO project, in 2004, the New York Times questioned its own story about this and I was in touch with Bill and the story about Kitty’s lover, Mary Ann Zialonko, came out and it became publicly known in 2004, so he realized there was a part of her life he didn’t know about, so that propelled him to allow me to document the journey he was about to take.

Q: Abe Rosenthal’s New York Times article omitted the fact that her friend Sofia was with her when she died – did the author intentionally lie?

JS: Mike Wallace speaks to this narrative to the extent of which there is an adage that “there are some stories too good to check,” but just so you know, Sofia Ferrara is in the first several days accounts of having held Kitty and she was hiding in plain sight and testified about it. She was there. Now why everyone dropped her from the narrative is your guess is as good as mine. To me it is extraordinary that the part of the narrative that would offset the premise of It was dropped. But the existence of Sofia who ran out in the middle of the night to be with her friend as she died, that was in the original accounts and reported in the Long Island Press.

Q: Did any other papers cross check the facts of that night?

There were five daily papers at the time, but most genuflected at the New York Times. It is mystifying and inconceivable that 38 people watched this for more than a half hour. It’s impossible. But this film is all about false narratives – we all have photos and lure in our lives that we cling to in order to get us through the day – whether consciously or unconsciously.

Q: Why do you think the people in the building were so willing to open up to you?

A lot of people have felt they owe something to Kitty, and Bill as the surrogate for Kitty is why they were willing to cooperate and were so welcoming to essentially strangers and Bill. We are now 50 years past the incident, but I don’t think anyone will ever be as inside this story because of Bill.

Q: How did you keep going on throughout all these years of filming?

JS: Editing is a singular talent with depth and patience and Gabriel [Rhodes] and Russel [Greene] helped us find our way. They stayed with the project; it’s one thing for a filmmaker to be in it is one thing but to have others willing to go the extra mile is where it sinks or swims. I don’t have the skill and craft but I had passion and a strong emotional story that didn’t start in the beginning of the film. My brother John – who was the person I looked up to more than anyone else in the world – got sick and died during the filming. So it was what was propelling me in many respects and the team helped hone in on the notion of loss and sibling loss. Their skills helped me deal with that and tell Bill’s story without getting in the way of Bill’s story.

Q: Do you feel this story has indeed changed human behavior, having been aware of Kitty’s story?

JS: Regardless of what facts were true or untrue or omitted, Kitty’s story has become equivalent to a biblical parable that will live on forever. If you are ever in a situation where you are witnessing someone in distress, you will most likely think about Kitty and hopefully act instead of watch.