Thursday, October 29, 2009

William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe

by Chuleenan Svetvilas

"My sister and I weren't around for our father's glory days," Emily Kunstler says in William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, a new documentary on the controversial career of the rabble-rousing, radical lawyer of the 1960s and '70s. Emily and her sister Sarah, both born in the 1970s, have explored their father's legacy by directing a film with riveting archival footage and numerous interviews.

The film shows how Kunstler's upstate New York suburban life changed in the 1960s after he traveled to the South to participate in the civil rights movement and began defending the Freedom Riders. He had found his calling—fighting injustice. Later he represented Vietnam War protesters; met his second wife, Margaret Ratner (Emily and Sarah's mother); and defended the "Chicago Eight" against charges of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The film includes startling sketches from that 1969 trial, showing Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, of Oakland, bound and gagged in the courtroom. (Seale was later severed from the case.) The documentary also tells how Kunstler negotiated on behalf of inmates at New York's Attica State prison in 1971 after they rioted in protest of brutally inhumane conditions and treatment at the facility, and two years later helped end the 71-day standoff between the government and Native Americans at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.

The filmmakers also reveal how their father's work of the 1980s and '90s gave them nightmares. "We realized he was defending bad people," says Emily. "People accused of rape, terrorism, organized crime, and cop shooting." Their mother recounts how she didn't want her husband representing El Sayyid Nosair (accused of killing Rabbi Meir Kahane, a militant rightwing Jewish leader) because she thought it put the girls in danger.

The directors interview Kunstler's detractors and supporters alike, from Alan Dershowitz to Dennis Banks, founder of the American Indian Movement. The film, opening in theaters in November, presents the many sides of a complex man who was loved and despised for his work by the time of his death in 1995.

[The above article was first published as "Kunstler Documentary Paints Complex Portrait" in the October 2009 issue of California Lawyer]

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer, editor, and critic based in Oakland, California. Her writings on film has appeared in Dox, Documentary, and Release Print magazines. She is the Managing Editor of California Lawyer.

Emily and Sarah Kunstler on Their Documentary "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe"

by Chuleenan Svetvilas

Emily and Sarah Kunstler

William Kunstler, at mic

Chuleenan Svetvilas interviewed Emily and Sarah Kunstler on July 26, 2009 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, which screened their film William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe. The film opens in theaters in November. Go here for a list of screenings.

What is the significance of screening in the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival?

Emily Kunstler: We’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this. I think that coming here to this festival and thinking about what that meant for us and our film is an important experience for Sarah and me. The film itself doesn’t really deal specifically with Judaism but it’s a film about legacy. It’s about standing up in your lifetime, and courage, making those choices to be socially active. Getting to this festival and in terms of thinking about it being a Jewish film and our father’s being a Jewish lawyer has made us think about the choices he made in the context of the Jewish tradition, which is a completely new experience for us. But it seems quite obvious when we look at it, to see the choices that he made, sort of the history of the prophetic Jewish tradition and the Jewish tradition of social justice and working for the underdog. So that now seems quite obvious to us.

Sarah Kunstler: Our last interview was actually with a reporter who writes for Jewish magazines, a Jewish columnist, and in a very nice way he started asking us, “How Jewish are you?” And it’s an interesting question because we are largely secular Jews. We celebrated some Jewish holidays like Passover and Hannakah, the Jewish holidays that everyone kind of celebrates. But what is it that makes us Jewish and how much of that did we inherit from our father? We didn’t really get religion from our parents. Neither of them really believed in organized religion and it wasn’t a tradition that they passed down to us. And our father didn’t literally link his choices for us or explain his choices to us by tying them to a Jewish identity.

So as a result of that, we didn’t think about that tradition when we were making this film and we didn’t really work through the ideas about what it means to be a Jewish lawyer or how our film connects to Judaism. We were trying to think about why didn’t we do that. I think that because we didn’t get that from our father because he didn’t explain his activism to us in that way, because he didn’t share religion with us, that it wasn’t part of our experience. That said, I think being Jewish is a cultural and a historical and political legacy regardless of whether you embrace the religious traditions or not. We’re at a really weird place in thinking about this because it’s our first Jewish film festival. And it’s our first time really sitting down and thinking about it. The Jewish reporter was saying, “To many of us political leftist Jews, we were proud of him because he was a Jewish lawyer. He was one of us, we claimed him.” And that’s something for Emily and I to be proud of. We have to recognize that not only was he an icon that exists as a radical lawyer, as a troublemaker, as a civil rights lawyer but to the Jewish community he was a Jewish lawyer.

What prompted you to select your father as the topic for your first feature film?

Emily: it just seemed like a natural progression for our work. We had been making advocacy films for people in prison at that time for about seven years. It was around the tenth anniversary of our father’s death. What we do with our work is to combat racism in the criminal justice system. We were thinking about our father’s work, the legacy and for the first time allowing us to think about his influence on us. He died when we were teenagers so it wasn’t something we had ever really had an adult perspective. So we starting thinking about it and it seemed like the natural next step.

It was in part a personal archiving project, the voices we wanted to preserve for our children. People who he’d worked with were passing away one by one. We saw that these stories were being lost and were being co-opted. The civil rights movement was either being relegated to something in the past or was being like, George Bush was speaking at Coretta Scott King’s funeral. History is sort of funny that way and no one was really thinking about it in terms of this ongoing struggle And it was very important to our father. The most important work to do in civil rights was to maintain the rights that we have because as soon as you stop doing that work, they would slip away. So we thought it was an important time to make a movie about racism and about being an antiracist and about courage and social commitment.

We were also both approaching 30 and that’s significant. In addition to being a time when legacy was more important to us, it was also, how do we as relatively younger people connect these struggles for justice to the present day. How do we rescue this history from the past and from being this inaccessible chapter in the history book to being something that’s resonant and relevant and telling this story from our perspective -- having it be our inquiry as people who did not live through those times and are trying to live and breathe activism and social justice and responsibility was important to us.

This is a personal film, and it’s your first film in which you’ve inserted yourselves. Was that a challenge to have yourselves so directly in the film?

Sarah: I think “inserted ourselves” is an interesting choice of words because that’s definitely how it felt when we started this film. We felt in the beginning that we were inserting ourselves in a story that didn’t belong to us. And it was actually a question when we were first writing a proposal for the film we were going to make. One of the questions we got from potential funders, in a kinder way than this was: what right do you have to insert yourselves in this story?

It was really hard for us to do that because when you grow up with a parent who is kind of larger than life and in a public eye like our father was, you’re used to being on the sidelines and you’re used to not claiming that space. It felt like we were inserting ourselves. It felt like it wasn’t our story. And I think that making this film was a way of claiming that space and owning this story and figuring out how to tell it from our perspective. It’s interesting that a film can do that, that it can be a part of an evolution of your thinking and part of a rite of passage.

Emily: Initially we weren’t sure that we would be a part of this film. We figured out pretty early on that we couldn’t hide that we were his daughters and that we weren’t the right people to make a biopic about him that was completely impersonal and people would be talking to us, like you see in the film as if we were his daughters. And that opened a lot of doors for us and it closed a lot of doors for us. People would never talk to us as if we were impartial. It would always have that degree of intimacy. So we took that on. We made it a strength of the film. We thought that by telling it from our perspective it might be accessible. We didn’t want it to be a film just for baby boomers. We wanted it to be a film that people of our generation would respond to. We thought that telling a story that was in large part a universal story about a father-daughter relationship could be something that would invite a larger audience into the film.

So at what part during the process did you decide that you really did need to be a part of this film?

Emily: It was after the first couple interviews. People kept saying to us, “your dad.” We thought we could go in and we could coach people and say, “Please make sure to call him Bill or Kunstler or whatever else you could call him.” You never know how people are going to deal with you. It was really a struggle throughout the making of this film. We had some terrific producers who helped us shape this film and helped us feel comfortable putting our own voice in it. Sarah and I spent years being behind the camera and really liked being anonymous. In that sense we’re a lot more like our mother in that respect than our father. We’ve never been comfortable being the face of something. We’d much rather work from behind the scenes. So to make that choice is very hard and it’s still hard for us to see it and to feel so vulnerable and to be so exposed in that way.

Sarah: We pretty much knew that we were going to have to do it but we didn’t know how we were going to do it. It was really hard for us to do it. It was a struggle. It was a struggle when we went into the editing room. It was a struggle when we went on shoots because we didn’t know. I mean there’s a relatively new tradition of these memoirs of children making these films about their parents and kind of confronting that history, and often, that story is told with a lot more melodrama than our story is told. There’s a lot more kind of on-screen confrontation where the filmmaker is a protagonist who’s leading you through the story on screen. So we definitely confronted that tradition in making this film, like is that the movie that we want to make? We realized pretty early on that that wasn’t our story. Our differences with our father were more intellectual, like we weren’t abandoned as children. We weren’t confronting a father who left us. We weren’t going to invent this kind of psychological drama in order to make this film.

Emily: We weren’t finding this second family that we never knew about. [laughs] It’s also about dealing with people’s expectations because you want to satisfy that you’ve shared enough with an audience so that they feel like it justifies your presence. So hopefully we found a balance between the personal and the intellectual.

As you were interviewing people was it a way for you to learn more about your father or ask questions that you hadn’t been able to ask before?

Emily: Definitely, I feel like making this film gave us permission to ask the questions in the first place. When a parent dies there’s always things you wish you could have asked. There are always moments when you ask, I wonder what he would say if he were here today. But I think particularly when you lose your parent when you were a teenager. But it was hard to go to people, people that my father knew and ask for their time to sit and just talk with us so it gave us protection in that respect. We had lights and a camera. It made us feel like we were allowed to ask the questions that we always wanted to ask.

Any questions in particular?

Sarah: I think it was more about getting to jump into the storybook. It was getting to make real a history that was recounted to us and a past that didn’t belong to us. It wasn’t truth finding -- there wasn’t a Jerry Springer-esque moment in confronting one’s past.

Emily: Most of what we learned was through a series of collective interviews. But it wasn’t like there was one person who told us oh this and it really made sense to us. We interviewed over 50 people for the film. There are about 30 in the film. So we went out looking for answers but they weren’t targeted. They weren’t directed. We just wanted to talk to everybody about everything they knew and go back and put it altogether and look at it and make sense of it.

Sarah: Our father was really the principle embellisher of his own myth. He was the star of every story. And to get to go back and talk to people who realized that there were other heroes and other stories and other challenges and other risks. That it wasn’t always about him was pretty amazing for us. Earlier today Emily was talking about how this film is a story of transformation, our father’s multiple transformations in going from having a conventional law practice to civil rights to being radicalized but it’s also the transformation of Jean Fritz the [Chicago Seven] juror who is thinking about what America is, the way the world works, and is completely upended by that trial. Or Michael Smith, the prison guard at Attica realizing that he wasn’t protected from the violence and power of the state because he was a guard and there is value in the political struggle of the people he held in captivity. The judge in the Wounded Knee trial who dismissed the charges when he became aware of the misdeeds of the FBI and the government, that this is a story of those multiple transformations and we wouldn’t have known that story if we hadn’t gone looking for it. We wouldn’t have known those particular pieces of that story.

Did you feel that you were wearing two hats, director, daughter and had to try to be objective?

Emily: It’s very hard to keep perspective when you’re so close with the material you’re working with and it was a completely new experience for us so I think you know that’s where outside help came in to really help us keep our heads screwed on and keep our focus.

Sarah: Emily is also the editor and I was also the writer and we are both also producers of the film so it was many hats. Early on we thought we should hire someone to edit the film and that we were too close to it and we shouldn’t be involved at that level. But we wanted to shape the story. We didn’t trust that someone else would be able to tell the story and we’ve always edited our own stuff so we threw caution to the wind. And I’m glad we worked through it. People make films in different ways and a lot of people have clear-cut ideas, even in documentary of where they’re going to start, what is their arc, who their characters are going to be, and what’s going to happen at the end. Because our story was really a journey of discovery, we didn’t know necessarily. We had some vague ideas, we knew his life, his arc but we didn’t know what we would want. So the film was really built in large part through the writing and through the editing without being involved 100 percent in the process.

Emily: The whole process from beginning to end was really difficult. It was hard physical work and hard emotional work. It was also so rewarding. We got to give our father life again. We got to breathe life back into him. And we’re so grateful that we had that experience. There’s such a great archive of footage on him so we could go back and look at and find answers to some hard questions.

Any last thoughts?

Emily: What’s most important message about this film is a message about courage and responsibility and the power of the individual. We hope that what people take from the film is not that it’s a hero’s journey or a story about an infallible person but that it’s a story about a man who made choices in his life and who took risks, risks that we all could take in our own lives.