Michael Moore could easily be considered the most divisive documentary filmmaker of his generation. His work has been simultaneously called inspirational and threatening to the nation by a diverse group of members across the media. His films often exude a sort of “cultural currency” rare for documentaries, emanating a sociopolitcal relevance that strikes one equally as intrinsic as it is imposed. So why, in the build-up to Awards season, would a documentary short-listed for nomination by the Academy enlist an introduction by a man who was once booed at the very ceremony it hopes to attend? The documentary in question is about a figure who has been the target of even more divisive discourse than Michael Moore: the influential lawyer, William Kunstler.
“William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe” began its theatrical run last year, in November of 2009. A year later, the film has managed to stay in the Academy’s radar to be one of the fifteen documentaries shortlisted to be nominated for the Academy Awards. The film, directed by Kunstler’s daughters, Emily and Sarah, blends intimate home media (family videos, tape recordings made when they were kids) with an impressive collection of archival news footage from the famed lawyer’s career. This is ultimately a structural decision rather than a rhetorical one; instead of posing an argument about Kunstler, the film explores a historical narrative that contextualizes his influence as a lawyer and a father. Emily’s voice-over narration emphasizes this aspect, inflecting the film with a subjective, first-person angle that extends the scope of the story from the courtroom to the home. Emily’s narration reminds us that this film is not limited to William Kunstler, the lawyer, it is also about the man she continually refers to in the film simply as “Dad.”
Moore introduced the film and moderated a post-screening Q&A at New York’s Tribeca Grand Hotel with co-director Emily Kunstler; her mother, the civil rights attorney Margaret Ratner Kunstler; Yusef Salaam, William Kunstler’s former client, exonerated from the infamous “Central Park Jogger” case; and Vincent Warren, the Executive Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Emily Kunstler began making films ten years ago with her sister, Sarah, a practicing attorney. Their first projects were advocacy films for people in prison. The origins of this documentary, however, their first feature-length film, go back to their childhood. “It would seem that we started making this film around the age of six or seven,” Emily said about the documentary and its inclusion of personal family footage.
Yusef Salaam, who spent seven years in prison before being exonerated, commented of his relationship with Kunstler in the same familial tone, “He didn’t approach my case as ‘I’m just your lawyer,’ he really understood and connected -almost like a parent- to what was going on.”
Salaam was convicted and wrongfully sentenced for the 1989 assault and rape of a jogger in Central Park. The case attracted massive media attention and Salaam, along with four other African-American teenagers convicted in the case, faced overwhelming public scorn that led to a seemingly impossible trial.
“He would make the comment sometimes that even Jesus Christ himself couldn’t even win this case,” remembered Salaam.
The film covers many of the high-profile cases that Kunstler headed in his career. During the Q&A, Emily expanded on Yusef’s case in particular, “It’s one of the reasons why we made this film.”
“It comes directly from a lesson that we learned from our father about civil rights and the civil rights movement,” she continued. “He always warned about the civil rights movement being treated as a bygone chapter, a success of our past. We thought it was important to remind people that there is a continuing struggle.”
“”With Yusef’s story you could argue that the system works: they got it wrong but then they figured it out and they let him out and now everything is fine! But Yusef has never even gotten so much as an apology -from anybody,” she said about the case.
“When he was convicted he was on the cover of every newspaper every day of the week. When he was exonerated it was like, you know, buried in the eighth page. There are people that still don’t know that Yusef is innocent, and that he always was innocent.”
Emily Kunstler also touched on the conflicts she and her sister had with her father’s focus on taking controversial cases, “We were raised understanding the role of a lawyer, we really believed that everybody deserved a lawyer and deserved a really good one. We just didn’t know why it had to be our dad.
“I think that for my dad it was always about civil rights and anti-racism. Later in his life he began to see the defense of the unpopular, for people like Yusef who were never going to get a fair trial, those people whose rights were most likely to be violated in a courtroom. When anyone’s rights are violated, all of our rights are violated. He saw that as the forefront of civil rights work during that period.”
“He always talked about how the government would create enemies at different times,” said the co-director of her father’s focus on defending what at first glance seemed like “indefensible” clients in high-profile cases. “At certain points it was long-haired activists, at other points in our history it was African-Americans. Towards the end of his life he saw the new ‘enemy’ as Arab men. He called them “the Goldsteins” from [George Orwell’s] ‘1984,’ you lock someone up in prison to make everyone else fearful. And it worked, and it continues to work; as a culture we are fooled by that every time.”
Emily and Sarah’s next project is, in a sense, a continuation of their father’s legacy. They are currently working on a documentary about the son of El-Sayyid Nosair, one of Kunstler’s most notorious clients, who has been living in hiding under an assumed identity for the last twenty years because of the negative attention he and his family received.
“He wants to come out [of hiding] and use who he is to speak about peace and anti-racism and the Arab-American male experience and we are filming him through that transition,” commented the filmmaker.
Moore concluded the evening with a lighthearted question for Emily, “I think the last question that’s on everybody’s mind here is,” he began before a brief pause for dramatic effect. “What are you wearing to the Oscars?”