thewitness1-1600x900-c-default

The Witness, a new documentary directed by James Solomon, is so titled because of its initial focus on the infamous 38 witnesses of Kitty Genovese’s murder who allegedly saw the crime take place and did not call the police or take any other preventative action. Bill Genovese, Kitty’s brother, takes on the role of the documentary detective, walking us through transcripts of the trial, investigative notes, old newspaper articles, and even a bizarre segment of 20/20 in which the hosts at the time attempt to locate and contact the very same witnesses. With a case as big and as well-documented as the Kitty Genovese murder (which, as a voiceover informs us during the beginning of the film, was one of the catalysts for the creation of the 911 system), it was hard for me to imagine what a documentary made this late in the game could contribute to the conversation. Unfortunately, Solomon seems to have had the same problem. What results is a confused and often digressive documentary that draws almost all of its emotional and intellectual impact through well-worn genre clichés. If anything, The Witness is a testament to how a director can manage to beat a dead horse even deader and get away with it.

As someone who is admittedly a bit addicted to watching Lifetime docu-dramas in the first place, I was actually reasonably excited about seeing The Witness, and indeed, my biggest complaint with the film doesn’t lie in its cleaving to genre conventions. In fact, I think some of the most exciting visual moments come from those very same conventions. In the penultimate scene of the film, Bill Genovese sits on the block where his sister was killed decades ago and listens to an actress act out his sister’s death, ear-splitting shrieks and all. If you’ve watched any one of the Lifetime movies centered around a violent act against a woman, you are familiar with this particular emotional and narrative device. Sure, it’s often a convincing device, and I even have to give Solomon his fair due–much of his documentary is considerably more restrained, resolving not to tether its audience to the visible act of dying itself. Nonetheless, this scene gets at one of the major problems with The Witness, which is also one of the most prominent critiques I have with all of those Lifetime dramas to begin with: why are we so obsessed with watching men kill women?

It’s a pertinent question given the context of The Witness, which enjoys unimpeded access to the Genovese family. It’s clear to attentive viewers that there are some fascinating and unresolved tensions between the various members of the family that stem from their shared trauma, but the film doesn’t underline those. Neither does The Witness attempt to flesh out Kitty Genovese’s past life by interviewing her family members or trying to tell her story. Towards the middle of the film, we get a rushed and sketchy picture of Kitty’s life—she was married, she divorced, she was living with her female lover when she was murdered, she was a barmaid, she was a popular high school student—but no real reflections from any of the people who knew her about her dreams, her passions, or her internal and external conflicts. Kitty Genovese’s life has disappeared behind her public, dramatic, and eminently watchable death. The Witness really does what its title says it will do: we, as the audience, are transformed into cruel spectators, craning our necks to see footage of bloody handprints and desperate screaming, reifying her tragedy by refusing her a life before death at all.

There are several moments in The Witness that promise to transcend this cruelty but ultimately fail to deliver . One such moment is when Bill Genovese meets Stephen Moseley, the son of his sister’s killer, for the first time. Throughout the rest of the film, Genovese is consistently cordial and polite, open to receiving contradictory stories and doing his best to synthesize what people have told him with what he knows. The encounter with Moseley is vastly different in tone and atmosphere. Genovese tells Moseley that he wants to understand “what was happening in [his] father’s life that might have driven him to do this,” but cannot receive Moseley’s answer—that there were racial tensions that caused his father to snap. Later, when Moseley’s son requests that Genovese support his father’s application for parole, Genovese says decisively that he cannot because Moseley’s father is a monster. As I was watching this scene, I became aware of a bizarre release of tension in the theater—a few members of the audience were scoffing, while others were sighing in disgust. They were all united, as one, in the name of Kitty Genovese and against not only Winston Moseley, but everything his image evoked in the year 2015—questions about policing and incarceration, race and racial tensions all bubbled to the surface for the first time in the course of the film, and the scene that raised these questions also effectively shut them down, pulling an emotional trigger that let the audience off unfortunately easy.

Ultimately, I think that any discussion of The Witness has to boil down to a question of what we want these kinds of documentaries to do. If its primary goal is shock value and the gory and grotesque details of the Kitty Genovese murder, then I think The Witness succeeds. Unfortunately, if it’s aiming for any manner of genuine reflection or embodied response, it falls just short.

Click here to read Alex Robertson’s capsule review of The Witness. The 53rd New York Film Festival runs from September 25 to October 11 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.