“The Witness,” a documentary more than a decade in the making, looks back at the murder of Kitty Genovese, an exhaustively chronicled event with a tremendous and widely debunked mythology surrounding it.
Were its ambitions simply to dramatize the story in the classic form of a true crime serial, it’d be fair to wonder whether there’s anything left to say about the fatal stabbing on a Kew Gardens street in March, 1964, and the supposed indifference surrounding it that became a national flashpoint.
The film, by James D. Solomon, digs through the sociological muck to personalize the tragedy. Really, it’s the story of Kitty’s younger brother, Bill, and his obsessive drive to find some sort of peace with what happened that night, to reach an understanding, however difficult and remote, of how and why his sister died. This exploration is characterized by devastating revelations and encounters rife with overwhelming emotions, finding Bill making frequent trips from his Connecticut home to Queens, meeting with everyone from Kitty’s close friends to the legendary late New York Times editor A.M. Rosenthal, who was responsible for the initial story.
It offers, for the first time, a tangible picture of who Kitty was and who she hoped she might become, while keeping her shrouded in mystery, while powerfully conveying a truth about how grief and trauma ripples out from a tragedy like this and can never be fully contained or compartmentalized.