In The Witness, Kitty Genovese Is More Than Just An Iconic Victim

Photo: Courtesy of FilmRise.
Here is a truth about losing someone you love: It never gets easier; and in some ways, you don't want it to. Well-meaning people say time will heal all wounds. But when a parent, spouse, sibling, or friend is yanked from the world, you might move forward without ever moving on. Grief is a comfort, because it is evidence of an indelible mark on the heart.

Bill Genovese's sister died on the night of March 13, 1964. Her name was Kitty and you have heard her story. She was walking from her car to her apartment late one night after work when a man viciously attacked her with a knife. A neighbor yelled out and the man ran away. Kitty staggered into the vestibule of her building, but no one came to help, so the story goes. The man returned. He stabbed her again and again before leaving her to die. Eventually, the police arrived. Kitty took her last breaths in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. She was 28 years old.
In all the time since, Kitty Genovese has become a symbol of a psychological precept known as the bystander effect: the idea that as the number of witnesses goes up, the likelihood that an individual will intervene on behalf of another diminishes. The bystander effect is also sometimes referred to as bystander apathy, which distressingly suggests that, on some innate level, we can't be bothered with the survival of a stranger. Both terms arose in the direct aftermath of Kitty's murder, becoming a mainstay of sociology and psychology syllabi across America. But prior to being an an axiom of human behavioral theory, the suggestion that we don't feel obligated to save each another began with a The New York Times story titled "37 Who Saw Murder Didn't Call The Police."

That story and its callous implications are at the center of a wrenching documentary from screenwriter James Solomon, The Witness, which follows Kitty's brother, Bill, on his journey to understand what really happened to his sister that night and what the world has attached to the circumstances of her death since. Bill is a deeply empathetic subject: A Vietnam veteran who lost his legs in the war and a family man and father who cannot put what happened to his adored older sister out of his mind without understanding her death on his own terms. He wonders aloud how his life would have taken a different course if he wasn't so fearful of being a mere bystander himself.

One stroke at a time, the nuances of a woman who lived before she tragically died emerge.

In Soloman's directorial debut, which premiered in 2015 at the New York Film Festival, we watch Bill as he investigates the original newspaper story, debunking the myth that no one called the police or tried to help Kitty; among other things, he makes a bittersweet discovery that Kitty wasn't alone in her final moments — a friend and neighbor named Sophia Farrar came upon Kitty during the attack in the stairwell, cradling her bleeding body until the end. Bill also discovers that, contrary to the Times reportage, a number of witnesses did call the police; that neighbors believed what they heard was a row between a husband and wife; that once Kitty staggered out of the streetlight, the people who would have heard her screams during the initial attack wouldn't have been able to see or hear her in the second.

But The Witness isn't just a story about debunking a newspaper story that — now we know — incorrectly characterized not just the response to Kitty's attack, but a trait of the human condition. It's about building a portrait of Kitty herself, who, especially to the Genovese family, is so much more than a chapter in a sociology textbook. One stroke at a time, the nuances of a woman who lived before she tragically died emerge, as Bill speaks to her high school friends, the patrons at the bar where she worked, a former lover, a neighbor, and friend. We learn that dark-haired, sparkly eyed Kitty was a a girl who used to smoke cigarettes on rooftops and skipped school to dance in the park. She was a girl who cheekily wore a cowboy hat just for fun. She was a romantic with a little red sports car. Watching her siblings visibly grieve on camera, we can see the mark that her life — not only her death — left on their lives. They tell old stories and laugh, tears forming in their eyes.

Put another way: Time does not heal all wounds. But deeply felt sorrow often mirrors a deeply cherished love.

The Witness opened on June 3 at New York City's IFC Center. National rollout is set to follow.

This summer, we're celebrating the biggest movie season of the year with a new series called
Blockbust-HER. We'll be looking at everything film-related from the female perspective, interviewing major players in the industry and discussing where Hollywood is doing right by women and where (all too often) it is failing them. And now...let's go to the movies!

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