One of the toughest challenges documentary filmmakers face is finding a fascinating subject that can hold an audience’s attention and provoke discussion. Filmmaker sisters Emily and Sarah Kunstler were fortunate enough to grow up with an ideal documentary figure – their father, famed and reviled civil rights lawyer William Kunstler. Interestingly enough however, as they revealed in a Q&A moderated by iW’s Eugene Hernandez in SoHo’s Apple Store during April’s Tribeca Film Festival, it took them seven years into their filmmaking careers to fully realize the potential of making a film about their father. The end result, “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” will make its TV debut as part of PBS’s POV lineup on June 22.
“It had never occurred to us to make a film about our father, which in retrospect seems strange,” said Sarah. “He’s such a natural choice of subject.” Sarah said that it was the events that transpired post-Katrina that inspired her and Emily to document their father’s controversial career. “We were struck by what we had learned from our father,” she said, “which is that he was always suspicious when moments from the civil rights movement were memorialized or praised as pieces of a forgotten past. He felt that every time we pat ourselves on the back for those victories, we lose sight of how far we have to go as a society and a nation to have true equality. We wanted to make a film about what we learned from him. But it also was that we were both approaching 30. When you get to be 30 you start to think about legacy, about what you want to take from your parents and what you want to pass onto your children.”
Despite their best efforts to map out the film they were going to make (they described going so far as to create a flowchart for the film’s trajectory with index cars and pushpins), the end result yielded some surprising findings for the sisters, especially given the personal nature of the film.
“When we started out we were very self conscious about this being a film we were making about our Dad,” Sarah said. “We really wanted to be balanced, we wanted to give both sides. We realized a couple of things pretty quickly. We realized the tension in our film wasn’t about how other people felt about our dad, it was about how we felt about our dad. It’s a film told from a very personal perspective. Once we became comfortable with the notion of us needing to be vulnerable in this process, it was less of an issue for us.”
“It was a journey of discovery,” Emily added.
Though the sisters set out to make a film mostly from their own perspectives, they said they remained aware of the effect the documentary would have on those close to Kunstler, namely their family. “When we decided to make this film we were really scared to tell our family,” Emily said. “We thought our mother would hate the idea. The rest of the family are people that have a tremendous stake in the story, and we didn’t think that we could bare that mantle. We couldn’t make a film about everybody’s William Kunstler, we could only make a film about ours.”
To get some outside perspective, Emily revealed that they workshopped screenings on a “painfully regular basis” as their mother’s house with family members and friends. “There would be this real beating where people would watch footage and say what they have to say,” Emily said. “We’d always spend two days recovering, but it was helpful. In some ways it helped us find a thread that we didn’t know we had dropped, or find a new one we didn’t know we needed. A lot of times it turned us into fighters. It allowed us to fight for the story we wanted to tell, in the face of people who didn’t want to believe it.”
Most importantly, said Sarah, the film served as a way for them to reconcile with their father from beyond the grave. “It brought him back to life in a lot of ways,” she said. “Our Dad passed away when were teenagers, so we didn’t’ get to have the reckoning that you get to have with a parent; where you sit down, both as adults and you look at your Dad from across a gulf of understanding that you realize will always be there. You know, where you say ‘I’m okay with you and you’re okay with me, so we’ll leave it at that.’ We never got that with him. Making the film was a way of peering over that gulf anyway, and assessing the man and the father.”