A Haunting Tragedy: James Solomon’s ‘The Witness’ revisits the shocking demise of Kitty Genovese

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James Solomon wrote his screenplay for The Conspirator (2011) in 1993. Eighteen years would go by before the theatrical release of that film, about Mary Surratt and the Lincoln assassination plot. (Solomon’s youngest child is named Lincoln.) The filmmaker’s next project, The Witness, was 11 years in the making, premiered at the 2015 New York Film Festival, and opens theatrically in New York on June 3 via FilmRise. “These two endeavors have straddled an enormous part of my adult life,” Solomon says during a telephone interview in New York City. The Witness is about an equally tireless man, Bill Genovese, and his efforts to correct the longstanding version of his sister Kitty Genovese’s 1964 murder. “Both films are fundamentally love stories,” Solomon says, “and the depths to which people are willing to go in the service of that love.”

Twenty-eight-year-old Kitty’s stabbing and sexual assault in Kew Gardens, Queens, was first reported by Martin Gansberg in The New York Times. His article, “37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police,” stated that “38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks…” Many heard Kitty’s calls for help, but Gansberg claimed that no one intervened. That report of Kitty’s brutal demise has stood for over 50 years as the most extreme example of apathy, and of urbanites inured to violence. It was an horrific crime committed by Winston Moseley, a psychopath and necrophile who had raped, murdered and burned the body of 24-year-old Ann Johnson two weeks earlier. Moseley, who is incarcerated in Clinton State Prison in upstate New York, has consistently been denied parole. 

“I am always fascinated with the story behind the story that we think we know,” Solomon says, referring to both The Conspirator and to The Witness. In Robert Redford’s narrative film, based on actual events, Mary Surratt, the owner of a rooming house where John Wilkes Booth was a boarder, is convicted of a crime she may not have committed. Surratt went to the gallows to protect her son, the only conspirator to evade capture. In The Witness, Bill Genovese conducts a decade-long investigation into his beloved sister’s murder, in part to remember the sibling who understood him best.

If Genovese does not overturn what social theorists came to call “the bystander effect” after Kitty’s murder, he corrects many misconceptions, sheds doubt on several published accounts, and discovers new evidence. “When The Times revisited its own story in 2004 and questioned its accuracy,” Solomon says, “I can’t remember whether I had been writing to Bill already, but he had retired and was in a different stage in life. I think he was prepared and available, and desired to reflect on his past.” Within two years of Kitty’s murder, her mother had a stroke, and her father died of a stroke. In the documentary, Genovese, who was 16 when his sister died, speaks briefly of the family’s suffering, and of his determination not to be like the people who watched Kitty’s murder and did nothing.

The Witness opens in Genovese’s home, where he is seated in a wheelchair. He is heard in voiceover as he gathers papers that apparently would later be added to the large whiteboards spread around the room, comprised of photos, newsprint and notes related to his investigation. Two years after Kitty’s death, Bill joined the Marine Corps, and went to Vietnam; he says in the documentary that he felt compelled to take responsibility for his country. He wanted to differentiate himself from people who stood by and did nothing when others were dying. Bill lost both legs on a land mine. The Witness is narrated entirely in Genovese’s voice, and Solomon says he and his subject had a running dialogue about what to include in the documentary. The filmmaker, a former journalist who also works in broadcast, could not estimate his shooting ratio, but admitted that it was high.

Asked about his incredible access to his subject, and the very intimate nature of the documentary, Solomon at first speaks of the relationship he and Genovese shared. “Getting a sense of me was important to Bill, but we also had the same cinematographer, Trish Govoni, from the very beginning,” he explains. “She and I had gone to the American Film Institute together, so we have known each other for several decades. Melissa Jacobson, the co-producer, also worked on the film for 11 years. So, what you end up having is a kind of family, and the trust that develops over a decade.” During those years, Solomon suffered a profound loss. “In the course of making a film about a brother who lost his sibling, and with an abstract understanding of sibling loss,” he confides, “my only sibling, my closest, most beloved friend, my older brother John, died of leukemia in 2008.”

“If you take a long time on anything, life intrudes in good and bad ways,” Solomon reflects, “and your relationship to the subject changes as your perspective changes.” The subject in this case is an obsessive researcher, a tender man, but one who is also uncompromising. Genovese’s methods are sometimes bizarre, although he uncovers surprising facts about the night of Kitty’s death by speaking to surviving witnesses, reading police records and, sometimes, just by staring at photographs of Kitty. “Bill Genovese is the ultimate truth seeker, and he is rigorous and indefatigable, thorough and comprehensive in the way he navigates the truth,” Solomon observes. “He is open to whatever reveals itself and believes that the truth is complex and often unseen and unknown.” The documentary’s cleverly conceived drawings of the sightlines of many witnesses explain Genovese’s conclusions.

The Witness is also a portrait of the Genovese family’s grief, and its reaction to Bill’s investigation. In the immediate aftermath of Kitty’s death, none of the siblings, nor Kitty’s parents, spoke to the press or attended Moseley’s trial. “The film is about what we are willing or able to take in, the narratives that we tell ourselves, real or imagined, and what we want to know and don’t want to know,” Solomon explains. “Bill speaks to that in the very moving scene with his siblings. They all have a different need, and what’s amazing is their willingness to allow each other to satisfy those needs.” At one point, Bill’s younger brother asks, with concern and irritation, when it will all end. “But he’s there for Bill,” Solomon says. 

For those with a living memory of Kitty Genovese’s death, especially native New Yorkers, whose initial horror has not abated over the years as the crime was revisited in newspaper articles, scholarly literature and in books, The Witness may prove cathartic, yet it remains an uncomfortable reminder of the anonymity that still characterizes urban life. “It is an enduring mystery as to what happened that night, but the story as reported in The New York Times,” Solomon says, “of 38 law-abiding citizens who watched as a woman was stabbed to death three times, is only one narrative, but it is the one that shaped Bill’s life.” In the refrain of Phil Ochs’ “Outside a Small Circle of Friends” (1966), which was written for Kitty Genovese, is the line that her death “wouldn’t interest anybody outside a small circle of friends.” A scathing commentary on people’s indifference to suffering, it still has the ring of authenticity, yet James Solomon’s documentary undoubtedly widens the “circle.”