In The Witness, William Genovese investigates the circumstances surrounding the attack and murder of his sister, Kitty Genovese, and attempts to uncover the truth regarding the story that dozens of locals witnessed her murder and did nothing to intervene. It is an infamous case which has been continuously studied by criminal justice professionals after being misreported by the police sources initially, and by the press for decades. Because of this case, the terms “bystander effect” and “Genovese Syndrome,” where created, where people witness a crime and do nothing, such as call the police, because no one else did, or because they believed someone else already surely must have. It is said that Kitty Genovese’s case was the catalyst for what we now know as the 9-1-1 system, making it easier for citizens to reach out to police for help and have those calls documented.
To give some background on the crime (for those who may be unfamiliar with the crime or its details), on March 13, 1964 Genovese was attacked by a man on her way home to her Kew Gardens apartment after work, at about 3 a.m. While Kitty was being stabbed repeatedly by a complete stranger in the street, one neighbor heard her cries and yelled out his window, scaring off the attacker. Others admitted they heard the commotion, but thought it might have been a brawl from a nearby bar, so they went back to bed. No one came outside to help. It has been said that at least 38 neighbors ignored her cries for help. Already fatally wounded, Kitty staggered around her building to the back entrance. Her attacker hid a couple of blocks away in his car. When the police failed to arrive about 10 minutes later, her attacker ventured out, searching for Kitty. He found her in the lobby of her apartment building, stabbed her again, raped her, stole $49 she had on her, and left her to die. There is a version of the story where he attacked her three times. Extremely morbid stuff…
William Genovese interviews many of Kitty’s neighbors, high profile journalists of the day, his family members; anyone who he feels might be able to shed some light on what really happened to his sister that fateful night. He even attempted to interview Kitty’s attacker. If you have any interest in sociology, psychology, criminology, this film is for you. We learn so much more about Genovese and her life, her aspirations, her family, her friends. We also learn more about her neighbors, the attack and her attacker (who had the privilege of passing away in jail this year at the ripe old age of 81). All these years later, The Witness is one man’s sad, touching search for the closure he never got.
The Witness earned 8.5 out of 10 bloops. It isn’t the greatest documentary ever made, but the subject and what is uncovered makes it a must see. Its attempt to get down to the truth and dispel some of the mythology surrounding one of the most infamous murders in New York City is nothing short of riveting; particularly for me as a native New Yorker. The video footage of Kitty also makes The Witness worth watching, as you get to know her better. William still may not have all the answers he would have liked to get, but comes as close to closure as he will ever be at this point. If he cannot find closure, let us pray he finds peace after losing a family member to such random brutality. The Witness can be seen at the IFC Center in NYC or streamed on Netflix currently.