The Witness (3 stars)
Directed by James D. Solomon
Classification PG; 99 minutes
Tempest Storm (2 stars)
Directed by Nimisha Mukerji
Classification PG; 82 minutes
Every documentary filmmaker has nightmares about these two scenarios: In the first, you can't uncover the story you set out to uncover; in the second, you get all the access you need, but your subject has no insight into herself. In both nightmares, you've invested time and money and you've probed all you can.
The only way to save your project is to change its focus. Don't hang on like grim death – let the story take you somewhere new, and make your film about that. The Witness works because its director, James D. Solomon, pivots. Tempest Storm's director, Nimisha Mukerji, doesn't, and her film suffers for it.
The Witness revisits the infamous story of Kitty Genovese through the eyes of one of her brothers, Bill Genovese. Kitty's murder was a news sensation: On the night of March 27, 1964, the 28-year-old bartender was raped and stabbed to death on the street near her apartment in Queens, New York. After The New York Times reported that 38 people witnessed the attack and did nothing, Genovese became a symbol of America's increasing apathy toward violent crime. The Times eventually wrote a follow-up story admitting that its initial reporting was woefully incomplete, but the metaphor of Genovese lives on: As we see in the doc, Times editor Abe Rosenthal wrote a book about it; universities have structured courses around it; and television shows from Perry Mason to Girls incorporated it into their plots.
The doc begins with Bill Genovese's attempt to find some truths about the 38 witnesses: Who were they, what did they really see, who among them did or didn't help, and why? Along the way, it neatly lays out the original tale and the recanting that followed. But Genovese's trail, 50 years old, quickly goes cold.
This is director Solomon's pivot point: The story deftly switches focus from Bill's quest to Bill himself. We learn how and why the witness apathy story has haunted him for 50 years, his family's reaction to his admitted obsession over it, and how it shaped his life. A former Marine who lost his legs in Vietnam, he reveals that he signed up to fight as a reaction against apathy. What begins as a procedural focused on uncovering facts becomes a human story about the idea of closure: Why do we need it? Does it exist?
Tempest Storm, by contrast, begins and ends with Storm herself. At 88, she's still red-haired and trim, a tireless coquette happy to talk for hours about her past: A world-famous burlesque dancer, she was celebrated, um, high and wide for her ample bosom in the pre-implant 1950s and 1960s, and is now regarded as a symbol of you-go-girl fortitude in the burlesque world. (She performed well into her eighties, until she broke her hip on stage.)
Director Mukerji patiently draws out everything Storm has to offer about her childhood in rural Eastman, Georgia: the molestation she endured from her stepfather; the gang-rape she suffered at age 13 by four young men who were never prosecuted; her first three, quick marriages; how her fourth marriage – to Herb Jeffries, Hollywood's first black cowboy, well before interracial marriage was accepted – impacted her career; and how estranged she is from her grown daughter. Storm is also happy to let the camera tail her on her travels through the outer edges of showbiz, at the autograph and burlesque conventions she still frequents.
But there are several problems here: First, the doc provides no context for Storm's career outside her own version. Fans at conventions say things like, "She changed the face of burlesque entirely," but the film never shows us how. Second, the idea that burlesque is empowering to women is presented as a given. It's not examined or even questioned.
But mainly, the film suffers because Storm is not at all introspective. It's all access and no insight.
There are hints that, once Mukherji realized Storm's limitations, she could have pivoted from making a film that simply celebrates her into one that also uses her to show us uncomfortable truths about our slavish devotion to celebrity (especially a surface, sexist celebrity) and its emotional cost.
There are enough glimpses of the sadder, seamier sides of Storm's so-called fame – wheeling her luggage down the dispiriting corridor of yet another airport hotel; sitting alone at convention tables hawking old photos for $20 apiece; peeling false lashes off her thinning lids; popping the estrogen she's never stopped taking; trying and failing to connect with her daughter – to have made for an interesting counter-argument to the glittering one Storm keeps insisting on. But rather than delving into that other story, this doc nervously skates past it, almost as if Storm's slip is showing, and the filmmaker doesn't want to embarrass her.
Yes, you have to love your subject in order to make a documentary. But you can't be so over-protective that you miss the real story.