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William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe
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by Jay Seaver

"Would that all our home movies were this interesting."
3 stars

For most documentaries, the narrator is relatively anonymous - a reassuringly familiar celebrity voice, perhaps with some connection to the subject matter. For "William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe", it is Kunstler's youngest daughter, Emily, who made the film with her sister Sarah. She announces this right from the start, and one's first reaction is likely to wonder if perhaps they might be too close to the film's subject to see him clearly, and that turns out to be a legitimate concern.

Sarah's and Emily's relationship with their father wasn't pure hero-worship, though. As the film opens, they say point out that William Kunstler landmark civil rights cases were behind him when they were growing up in 1980s New York City; then, he was by and large a criminal attorney, often taking the cases of accused rapists and terrorists, drawing threats and protesters to their door, and dangerous people to the office in the basement of their home. How to reconcile that with the heroic stories of his earlier years?

The easy answer is that Kunstler believed that every accused person deserves a fair trial and a vigorous defense, and that's roughly the answer that his daughters appear to come to. They don't come out and state as much, and when all is said and done, they still seem to have a difficult time reconciling the William Kunstler that existed before they were born with their father. The first half to two-thirds of the movie is packed with archive footage and recordings of well-known events like the Attica riots, the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial, and Wounded Knee, as well as smaller trials like his fight to allow a black couple to become his neighbors in Westchester, NY; there are plentiful interviews with those involved who are still around forty years later. The lesser amount of time spent on Kunstler's later activities is, in large part, used to describe how it impacted Sarah, Emily, and their mother. There is some commentary from Karin Kunstler Goldman, a daughter of William's first marriage, and it never seems like the two Kunstlers were completely different people, but there's a gap that Sarah and Emily have a difficult time bridging.

I don't blame them for this; Sarah and Emily are able to bring a unique perspective to their father's story, even if it may also be a limited one. Interview subjects often refer to William as "your father", and it pushes them to discuss him as a man as well as a lawyer and public figure. They also have access to his home movies and photographs, some going back to the 1950s. They are a treat, showing him before he became radicalized or grew his hair out, or discussing things with Sarah and Emily when they were very young.

Some of what he says there, and in news archive footage, can be difficult to watch. He can be eloquent and certainly earns respect for some of the cases he takes, but he'll also throw in things like "all white people are racist", or other cynical claims that, though they may be more true than we would like to think, seem far more absolute than perhaps is warranted; it often comes off as a classic case of liberal white guilt. He takes pride in how he grandstands in court, and one has to wonder if there are cases we don't see where that backfired badly. He clearly craved attention, and that is acknowledged, though seldom illustrated in a way that would show it as a serious flaw.

William Kunstler was an interesting man, and his daughters have certainly made an interesting movie about him. In some ways, I hope someone else takes a crack at a William Kunstler movie, perhaps as a narrative feature. "Disturbing the Universe" is informative, and in some ways the filmmakers' journey is as interesting as the subject's - Emily and Sarah seem to have their respect for their father solidified - but their unique ability to get close in some ways naturally holds them back in others.

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originally posted: 11/20/09 01:49:03
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2009 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Traverse City Film Festival 2009 For more in the Traverse City Film Festival 2009 series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2009 Austin Film Festival series, click here.

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  13-Nov-2009 (NR)
  DVD: 27-Apr-2010



Directed by
  Sarah Kunstler
  Emily Kunstler

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