Thursday, January 26, 2012

Daughters' Doc Does Kunstler Justice

Find William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe on Video

Daughters' Doc Does Kunstler Justice

I urge everyone to see William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, an enlightening, poignant documentary about one of the left's true heroes that opens at the Cinema Village this Friday. It is the heartfelt work of Kunstler's youngest daughters, Sarah and Emily, and there's little doubt that for them there is an undeniable sense of personal discovery as they unravel his story. Political filmmakers and activists, they were born in the 1970s and never fully understood their father's extraordinary legacy until making their movie. They both directed and produced; Sarah (the one with dark hair in the photo) served as the writer, Emily as the editor and narrator.
As a champion for civil rights and civil liberties, Kunstler both disturbed the universe and shook up America for three decades beginning in the 1960s, first as the lawyer for clients with progressive causes--a black family (named Redd) who wanted to move into an all-white neighborhood in Rye, New York; the Freedom Riders; Daniel Berrigan and the Cantonville 9; the Chicago 8; the prisoners who seized Attica to protest inhumane conditions there; Black Power activists, and AIM--and then for less noble clients--Larry Davis (a drug dealer who shot six policemen when they tried to arrest him); John Gottii; El Sayiid Nosair (accused assassin of Rabbi Meire Kahane); even suspects in the 1993 car-bombing of the World Trade Center. Until his death in 1994, he stood up to the government, narrow-minded judges, the police and FBI, the press, and angry protesters outside his West Village apartment, defending the defenseless and often getting impossible non-guilty verdicts. Sarah and Emily heard from their father about his earlier trials and learned from him about injustice and prejudice in America, but they only experienced firsthand the later trials that made the two teenagers and his admirers question if he'd traded his principles for celebrity. As they say in the film, it took them "years to come to terms with his choices."
Without apology, they now see him as a hero, and find themselves indebted to him for their own political and career choices. In 2000, Sarah and Emily founded Off Center Media, which produces documentaries, such as the award-winning short, Tulia, Texas, Scenes from the Drug War, that expose injustice in the criminal system. In addition, Sarah is a criminal defense attorney.
I interviewed Sarah and Emily Kunstler last Friday about their movie and their father. I usually edit and rearrange questions and answers to make the interview flow better, but in this case I prefer it as we said it:
Danny Peary: Do you two usually agree on everything in regard to filmmaking?
Emily Kunstler: Having a creative collaboration, the most important thing is trust. Who can you have greater trust with than your sister and best friend? Sarah and I have been collaborating since our infancy and so in terms of the creative decisions and the artistic vision of the film, generally we see eye to eye. But we're sisters so most of the frustrations and difficulties we have are about superficial things.
Sarah Kunstler: We didn't always agree when making this film, but not agreeing was part of the creative process. One person sees things one way, the other sees it another way, and you talk about it--and if you're sisters you probably fight about it--then you come to seeing it in a whole other way, together. Disagreements and different points of view are a valuable part of our process.
DP: Were you surprised that you didn't have exactly the same vision of your father over the years? Or did it turn out you did?

EK: He passed away when we were teenagers so I don't think either of us had a fully-formed concept of who he was. So we were sort of getting to know him together now. There were times when one of us would be angrier than the other one and one would be more forgiving, and we'd talk it through. I think at this point we see him pretty similarly.
SK: I disagree with Emily right now. I do think we had a fully-formed idea of who he was when he passed away. I do think we were fully-formed people when he passed away. What I feel we didnt have with him--and maybe this a question of semantics--is an adult relationship.
EK: That's what I meant. We were kids.
DP: But you were smart kids. That's what I saw in that clip of you as teenagers actually challenging him on television for defending clients you didn't think he should take on. That was a brave thing to do, so in your own minds I think you believed you were on his level. Is that true?
SK: I think we did. In our house, asking questions and figuring things out and talking through different points of view were very much a part of our dinner-table conversations. What you see, for example in that New York One clip, is very how we were encouraged to engage with one another and our parents.
EK: Bill loved it when we showed an interest in his work, whether we were asking questions or raising criticisms. He loved that we were paying attention to what he was doing. Even what you see on New York One wasn't something that would have angered him; it would have been something he really enjoyed.
DP: He didn't seem angry. He seemed to think your challenging him was kind of common. At dinner, would his cases be the topics every night or was it school?
EK: Although we would talk about his cases over the dinner table, we probably would prefer to talk about what happened in school that day.
SK: We talked about our lives and school. We talked about a lot of mundane things. We didn't exclusively talk about his cases and his work, but that wasn't an off-limits area. If he wanted to talk about it or if we wanted to talk about it, we talked about it. If he was doing a case that was getting publicity, every night he would turn on the news to see how it was covered. It was a time when you still had to walk around the corner in New York to get the evening news, so every night he would take our dog Sam around the corner to buy every evening paper and he'd bring them back to see what they said about him. That was very important to him, and we'd all have a moment at the end of the day where we'd digest what the press was saying about William Kunstler and his cases.
DP: How did your mother [civil rights attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler, the president of the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice] react to this setup?
EK: None of us really took it seriously. We always thought it was a bit silly and would humor him to an extent. I think in a way the family not taking it seriously grounded him a little, because it never got the best of him. We would make jokes about his love of the spotlight and celebrity.
DP: So he was interested in that?
EK: Definitely. He was his own favorite subject.
DP: Did he admit he loved it?
EK: Oh, yeah.
DP: Did he see his hubris as a flaw?
SK: We never spoke to him about whether he thought it was a flaw or not, but he loved fame and was in touch with his love of fame, and he also understood that he had a talent for the sound bite, for using the media. It wasn't just that he loved fame, it was that the press was interested in him. That was something he consciously used to his own advantage and the advantage of the people he was representing. He very much felt it was his role to bring the cases that he was involved in into the spotlight.
DK: Was he hurt when someone said all he cared about was fame and that he didn't really care about his clients anymore?
EK: No. He didn't mind negative attention; he just liked attention. If he did something that made people pay attention to him, he loved that. He wasn't really a self-conscious person in that respect. He didnt grapple with "What are people going to think about this or that?" or "How am I going to appear to these people?" He very much acted on instinct.
SK: Our dad didn't have a sensitive ego. He also had a tremendous sense of humor. So it was very easy for him to take things with a grain of salt.
EK: And to make fun of himself.
DP: Looking back, do you find it surprising that he had no ego but didn't mind being criticized? Well, he had an ego but...
SK: ...he definitely had an ego but he wasn't easily wounded. He had a tremendous sense of self and his role in the world, but slings and arrows kind of bounced right off him. He was incredible in that way.
EK: What's more surprising about his personality and what he was able to sustain and maintain was his optimism. He fought a lot of battles and lost a lot of battles. Many of his friends were assassinated and he witnessed a lot of great tragedy. Yet he was happy and idealistic every day of his life and would always keep his eye on the greater war and not get lost in the battles. I speak to a lot of civil rights lawyers, and the victories are few and far between and the struggle is really arduous. But our father loved the struggle and was never depressed a day in his life as far as we could see.
DP: Was he taking small cases also or just high-profile cases?
SK: He took more cases than we could count. His office was in the basement of our house and one of the main functions of the administrative staff was to "keep people away from Bill." They knew that if you could stand eye to eye with him and ask for his help that there was no way he could say no. So he took a lot of cases. If you needed him, he wanted to be there. Sometimes he did that to the detriment of those cases, because when you take that many cases inevitably there are clients who are going to suffer from the lack of attention. But he really thought he could do everything.
DP: Did people on his staff take cases he couldn't do?
SK: No. It was a tiny office. He had only three administrative assistants and they worked one at a time, in shifts. And for his practice, he'd usually have one younger lawyer he'd be working with.
EK: I think he'd work on cases with him. Traveling with this film, we keep meeting people that he represented for small charges here and there, who come up and say, "Your father appeared for my mother" or "Your father wrote a letter to housing court when they threatened to evict me." He touched a lot of people.
SK: And not just people he represented but people he just met. One of the things that is really profound for me is that he spent a lot of our childhood trying to educate us about race and racism in America and in making this film we learned that he didn't do that just with us. He even did with other children he met, all over.
DP: You talk about people coming up to you. It's fun for me to meet you because he was a hero of mine. So when people say to you, "He was a hero of mine," are you tempted to say, "Yeah, but let me tell you about his flaws," or are you fine to leave their impression intact?
EK: He was a hero of ours, too. He was also a human being. Before making this movie I think we had a different perspective. Kunstler is a very unusual last name, so people of a certain generation or in New York who knew of him would ask us, "Any relation?" And we would usually say no, because we weren't sure if that person was a fan or someone who hated him, and it wasn't worth the risk. Also, we wanted to be our own people. When you have a father who is a well-known figure it's hard to strike out on your own and be your own person. But since making this film and choosing to identify that history as our own, we have a different perspective. Now we are both proud to be his daughters. We don't feel the need to argue with people who love him because we love him, too.
DP: When you talk about him, do you talk about a flawed person who did heroic things or a hero with flaws or just a hero?
EK: There are no flawless heroes. That's a complete fallacy. It's also dangerous to think of it that way because we might think we're incapable of being heroes in our own lives if we have flaws. Because we're all flawed people. One of the main reasons why Sarah and I chose to tell the story about a man who wasn't perfect was so that everybody who saw it would feel that they too could impact on their own lives, impact some sort of change.

DP: I'd think it would help you as filmmakers that he was a flawed person because that makes him more human.
SK: When we started making this film there were people who would say to us that our father was so happy that it will be hard to make an interesting movie about him. They thought he was too much of an optimist and good-humored person and didn't have those dark days of the soul. So we were agonizing over it, saying, "Oh, no, are we going to have a boring movie because dad was always happy?" But I think Emily is right in that we are all of us flawed and maybe we are all of us interesting because of those flaws. This is the only father I had so I can't compare it to making a movie about a different father. I think all of us have complex and interesting relationships with our parents. One of the reasons Emily and I wanted to make this film as his daughters is that we felt that audiences would connect to that parent-child relationship.
DP: It's clear to me that you had to be the ones to make a film about your father. Would you have just hated it if someone had beaten you to making a film about him?
EK: I guess it would depend on what kind of movie they made. I don't think anyone could have told this story from our perspective, but I'm sure there's another story to be told. He's been part of other documentaries but there hasn't been one that focused on his life before this one.
DP: Did you wish all along that he could see this movie and your political shorts?
EK: When our father passed away in 1994, the way our family dealt with it was to not deal with it. He was such a big presence that he left a big hole and we couldn't deal with it head on. So when Sarah and I started making films about the criminal justice system, we weren't really thinking about our work in respect to his work and his influence. Now the parallels seem obvious to us. But it was actually conversations we were having around the tenth anniversary of his death, talking about the work we had been doing making these films, at that point for six years, that made us realizie his influence and his legacy. That was a big reason we started to make this film. Now I definitely wish he could see our films. I think he would be proud. I think he would think we were continuing his struggle as anti-racists. I think he would have loved it. Of this film? Again, he was his own favorite subject so he would have loved any film about him and I think he would have loved that we had chosen to spend four years getting to know him better. In a lot of ways it has brought him back to life. For our family and people who knew him. And people who never knew him now get to know him, or at least a part of him.
SK: We never doubted that he was proud of us. We always felt as children that he was proud of us.
DP: Did he realize you were proud of him?
SK: Yeah. But it's different. We were definitely at the stage of our relationship with him where it was a parent-child relationship and one way. We weren't mature enough to have a two-way relationship with our father. We have no doubt he would be proud of us now.
DP: Talk about the subtitle Disturbing the Universe from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In the production notes, it says your father would recite the poem. Did he do it just to motivate you and all youth with the line"Do I dare disturb the universe?"--or was it also inspiration for himself?
EK: Both. He had several mythologies that he would follow and draw strength from and use to inspire other people. That poem, the story of David and Goliath and Michaelangelo's statue of David, and Moby Dick. He would repeat these over and over to the point where he became his own myth and now people tell his story.
DP: Was it a big thing choosing that subtitle? Did you understand the film better once you did that?
EK: We picked the name for the film when we were putting together the trailer for the film four years ago. We knew this was a film about myth and legend and about understanding reality, where myth and legend ends and reality and truth begins. And we knew it was also a story from a child's perspective. So we wanted these fables to be a big part of it. They were a big part of it for us growing up and we thought it would be a great way to express that parent-child dynamic and that exploration. So we knew the story of Michaelangelo's David would be in the film from the very beginning. And we knew that title would be there.
SK: Our father's biggest influence on us was to endow us with a sense of social responsibility and the idea that we should be on the look out for moments in our lives that are going to require courage and require us to take a principled stand. Those moments aren't necessarily going to be easy but we had to have the courage to meet those challenges.
DP: I want to discuss the word "justice." If your father won a trial, did he believe justice had prevailed or didn't he believe there was such a thing as justice? If he got a guilty man off in a fair trial, was that justice?
SK: There is a point in our film where Daniel Berrigan says that Bill in many ways had come to understand that the law of the land is not one with justice, and is very often its mortal opponent. He definitely felt a distinction between the law and justice. Justice was a never attainable thing that you continue to seek. I don't think he thought you could get justice in a courtroom.
EK: He saw justice as an ideal. I don't think you ever get there. Jerry Lefcourt, one of the lawyers we interviewed in our film,
told us that Bill used to talk about "finding the hidden path to justice" and that it was a constant struggle.
DP: Do you think he redefined the word "justice" over the years or was he thinking that way when he was starting out in the forties?
EK: I think he had a similar concept of justice. I don't know if "achieving justice" was his only goal. I don't think that came to bear in every case he ever took. There were criminal cases where he just tried to do the best he could for a client and political cases where he was just trying to put his client's politics out onto the national stage.
SK: Particularly in the political cases that were part of the social movement that our film covers, winning the trial wasn't always the goal. The Catonsville 9, for instance, broke the law [when they stole and burned draft cards] and had no expectation of winning in court. The trial was an opportunity to bring politics into the courtroom and have a dialogue about the war. The Chicago trial was the same way. It wasn't necessarily about winning--and winning wouldn't have been justice either. When you're talking about what happens in a courtroom, you're talking about a decision that twelve people make. And those twelve people are human and very often their verdict has no impact other than what impact it has on those people in that room.
EK: The way people tend to look at the criminal justice system is almost as simplistic as the way a child looks at a parent. They believe: If someone is arrested, he's probably guilty; if someone is convicted and goes to prison, he should be there. But there are no absolutes and there are all these subtleties, so we have to ask questions, we have to be curious children in all this. Otherwise people's lives are ruined and we're participating in perpetuating these realities.
SK: Our father worked within the system but he was kind of an outsider and insider at the same time. He worked inside a system he didn't believe in and a lot of the cases, his goal was to get the jury to not think about guilt or innocence but to vote their conscience and vote not guilty as a way of condemning the system as a whole.
DP: Did he stay in touch with the Chicago 7 or Bobby Seale?
EK: Yeah, he stayed in touch and did speaking tours with a lot of them. His closest friends were the YIPPIES, so he remained close friends with Abbie Hoffman and Dave Dellinger until the ends of their lives.
DP: I admired him so much because he seemed to be part of every major political event during that time. He was older than us. He wasn't a father figure but he wore a suit and tie and seemed to give us respectability and credibility. Did he see himself as a "big brother" to the whole movement?
EK: I think he wanted to be part of the movement and be regarded as a peer. I don't think he wanted to be seen as a big brother or a father. He spoke the same language, he smoked the same pot, he slept on the same couch, he went to Woodstock. I'm sure it looked weird from the outside, but he felt perfectly at home. SK: He understood that with his suit on in a courtroom that he lent a certain respectability and he was more than willing to lend that to the causes that he was representing.
DP: So he willingly played that part and we were glad to have him do that. He wanted to be a peer but did he feel always that he had more responsibility than other people? Because he was representing people and causes and, as you say in the film, he took on not just a leadership role, but a pied piper role.
EK: If anything, his age and his position as a lawyer gave him protection. And he knew that the great risks were being taken by his clients, not by himself. So he could put himself out there in that way and make outrageous statements publicly because he was much more untouchable than his clients. No one is untouchable, but it looks a lot worse to kill the lawyer that the activist.
DP: Was the home movie footage of him shot by you two as kids?
EK: Yes, though our mother shot the footage where we're both there. We have a lot of stuff that we filmed of him. The sequence of him being silly at the end of the film--we shot a lot of that as kids. We have a lot more audio of interviews we did with our dad than film.
DP: How did it feel when making the movie to go to places where major events happened back then and where he'd also been?
SK: Those were really powerful trips for Emily and me. Standing in those places...We are both very sentimental people and places are important to us, but to hear those stories from our father about being at Attica and being at Wounded Knee and then standing in the shadow of those monuments and that history was pretty spectacular.
EK: Especially after going through archival footage of those same places and then going to see them.
SK: Yes, archival footage and all of our bedtime stories.
EK: Bill had taken us to Wounded Knee when we were teenagers. He would travel there for the anniversary most years and he brought us there on the twentieth anniversary in 1993. It was so important to him that it be part of our history.
DP: Even watching you from behind in the film, I could tell you were feeling emotional during your visit there.
EK: Our mother was with us on both of those trips because we thought it was important for all of us to experience them together.
DP: It's powerful, as is the sequence with Yusef Salaam, who spent time in prison in the Central Park Jogger case before being exonerated. Seeing Yusef Salaam in your film as an adult, how do you feel, considering you didn't want your father to represent him?
SK: We'd never met him and had no relationship with him, other than the relationship we had with him in our heads when we were children and were scared of him and assumed he was guilty. We were frightened to meet him because it meant owning up to and confronting prejudice and misconceptions that we'd had. Then we were frightened again to share the film with him because we felt that we had exposed ourselves in the film as being, literally, part of the angry mob who had misjudged him. I remember the day we showed him the film. We invited him over to our mother's house. His mother, brother, sister and family came and everyone was packed into our living room to watch the DVD. And everyone was dead silent through the entire film. We usually can read audiences but we couldn't tell how anyone was feeling. All of us were so self-conscious watching the film together--us not knowing how they'd react and them not knowing what they were going to see. Yusef loved the film. That meant a lot to us. He's traveled with us and the film and spoken after screenings. He's a powerful spokesperson and people love having the opportunity to connect with him and hear his story in person. He says the film has been therapy for him. He has been able to work through some of the issues he's had going into prison and coming out and trying to live his life. For Emily and me, that's the greatest gift.
DP: You already answered this in part: How were you shaped by your dad?
EK: Sarah mentioned how he really instilled in us this real obligation to act out against injustice in our own lives. I think we knew that as kids but didn't know how that was going to manifest. It was really our religion at home.
SK: When you look at his life you see he was a pretty straight guy until he got the call to go to the South to work [with the Freedom Riders] and that kind of changed him; and when he was fifty, he was radicalized again when he went to Chicago. The sixties changed him, too. So what we take from his life is that it's never too late to have those kinds of transformative moments.
DP: You two were radicalized from the beginning.
EK: But can you say we were radicalized if we didn't change from anything? We were indoctrinated.
DP: One final thing: I have to ask you about the moment in the film when Jimmy Breslin tells you that cops gave your father, the most famous radical lawyer, rides in the city. Did that shock you?
EK: Jimmy was a lot of fun to talk to. I don't think we knew what he said. It did surprise us, although we knew the police didn't hate him. It was very easy to hate our father in the abstract. People would hear about him and have expectations. They'd heard he would jump up on the defense table and start tearing off all his clothes and be like a maniac. Everybody who met him genuinely liked him, because he was very personable. He would know the names of all the court clerks and bailiffs and would greet them all. He'd ask, "How's Billy doing in soccer?" He cared about people and I think everyone he met realized that.
DP: I wish I met him but I'm glad I met his daughters.

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