Cinema Review: The Witness | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Thursday, June 30th, 2022  

The Witness

Studio: FilmRise
Directed by James Solomon

Jun 13, 2016 Web Exclusive
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The murder of Kitty Genovese looms over Kew Gardens even today - 50-plus years after she was brutally killed in the vestibule of her tiny apartment, a few steps away from the local Long Island Railroad station. It wasn’t so much her death that shocked New York City - though the news of the crime was a jolt to the sleepy, upper-middle class Queens neighborhood - but how it happened. According to the initial news reports, 38 people witnessed at least part of the crime and chose to do nothing, leaving a young woman to die at the hands of a vicious, remorseless psychopath. The story, not surprisingly, had legs - and served as a cruel indictment of New York and its residents - for decades. Sociologists analyzed the case. Outsiders pointed to it as emblematic of the dangers of New York and those shocking, early reports lived on, unchallenged.

That’s where James Solomon’s well-crafted and meticulous documentary, The Witness, begins. The film follows Kitty’s younger brother Bill Genovese as he attempts not only to discover the truth behind his sister’s death, but also to unearth who she was in life. Both questions lead to evocative, if not completely surprising answers.

Like the film itself, Bill is methodical and thoughtful in his efforts, carefully retracing and revisiting the events of March 13, 1964 with quiet determination. But the biggest challenge Bill faces isn’t a Serial-like quest to exonerate the innocent or find a heretofore unknown killer. His self-described obsession craves something more primal: to finally look into the darkness that has been ever-present in his life since he was six - influencing his decisions in the process - and determine if what he’d believed for years is actually true.

Solomon’s presentation is stark and eschews flashy ornamentation in favor of presenting Bill’s sometimes quixotic journey with care and honesty. Everything, from the music to the subtle animation segments that reenact and accompany certain interviews, takes a backseat to Bill and his mission. This works on various levels - it gives the viewer a human touchpoint, making a documentary about a memorable but generally “closed” crime feel much more alive and of-the-moment and humanizes all aspects of the tale, from the victim to the neighborhood to even the murderer.

The documentary soars when it focuses on the emotional aspects of the story, like Bill’s decision to enter military service during the Vietnam War to avoid being “just a bystander” - only to face an even closer parallel to his sister’s life - or a particularly heartwrenching interview near the end that turns a basic misconception about the murder on its head. But despite the ridealong nature of the narrative, which succeeds in drawing the viewer in for the most part, you can’t help but feel like you missed an important “gotcha”-style moment as the story unfolds. Perhaps that’s just how we’re wired now, in the post-Serial, Jinx and Making A Murderer age. Or is the drama undercut by time itself, eroding evidence and witnesses so much that one has to wonder why Bill waited so long to begin this journey? That question is never clearly answered.

But even the fleeting feeling of not having all the right plot boxes checked serves the film’s greater revelation: showcasing how one moment can ripple out and affect myriad people, how brief and finite life is and how easily the facts that surround a death can be misinterpreted or even twisted in the frenzy for a good story.

Skillful, complex, and purposely understated, The Witness succeeds not just as a re-examination of one of the most talked-about crimes in modern memory, but as a very touching, human tale of a brother trying to get to know the sister he lost too soon.

Alex Segura is a crime novelist. His Miami crime novels Silent City and Down the Darkest Street – featuring washed up detective Pete Fernandez – are out now from Polis Books. You can find him at or on Twitter @alex_segura. He lives in Kew Gardens.

Author rating: 8/10

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