2016, Movies

The Witness (2016, James D. Solomon)

We’ve all heard the story of the woman who was murdered in New York City in sight of thirty eight people who did nothing, a story that told us all of the moral degradation of modern urban society. I thought the story was apocryphal. Well, this movie is about her brother, his quest to find out what really happened, and to finally come to terms with the death of his sister.


As the girlfriend said to me, the moment you ask yourself ‘could 38 people really witness a murder and none of them do anything?’ you start to realize this story couldn’t possibly be true. Even in the Nazi concentration camps there were acts of compassion and kindness.

And, sure enough, the brother – who seems to have become obsessed with his sister’s death since his retirement – discovers that the New York Times exaggerated the story to sell papers/make a statement about New York and that the thirty eight witnesses only heard the scream, multiple people claim to have called 911, and multiple people tried to or came to her aid. So no, 38 people didn’t watch someone die and did nothing.

Rather than a story about apathy in the big bad city, the story is really about how loss can destroy families and alter lives, how every media outlet must be scrutinized on every story no matter how prestigious, and how memory can dominate life.

I’m always wary of a film produced by its subject, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the final cut here. Genovese’s obsession to discover what happened is portrayed as an actual, problematic obsession with more honesty about that obsession than we could have asked for, and we get a nuanced portrait of how stories change and how the telling of them matters more than we could possibly know.

The film is also supported by some of the best animation I’ve ever seen in a documentary.

Well worth your time.


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